There are tons of options out there for parents looking to build a college fund for their kids. Products of every type exist to help lock down your child’s education, but they’re not all equal. Which savings programs which actually help you tackle the cost of a college education, and which are just a bit better than a coin jar on the counter?
Depending on your state, your income and how sure you are that college is in your child’s future, there are any number of plans that may be best suited for you. But in general, if you’re going to save for college expenses, you want to look for any plan that can make your money stretch even farther. Look at 529s or prepaid tuition plans to help minimize the cost as maximize your savings as much as possible.
The trick is to save early
Saving for college is about putting a little bit of money away over a long period of time. College is expensive, and it’s only going to get more expensive as time goes on. Tuition regularly rises above inflation, and that means that the total you have to save for can feel like an unreachable, enormous number. It’s not - but it requires time to achieve.
Many parents or grandparents will start a college savings account for a baby before it’s even born, which is probably the best option if you’re absolutely sure you want to be able to provide the option of a funded college education for your child. A simple goal you can set for yourself is to put away $2,000 each year of your child’s life, so that by the time they graduate from high school at age 18, you have at least $36,000 put away.
Take advantage of 529s
There are lots of 529 college savings accounts available on the market. All operate on the principle of long-term savings, but not all are equal. Parents should look are prepaid college savings accounts and student housing choices that lock in tuition rates for state colleges, which are a much more affordable alternative to virtually any private college.
Because tuition will only go up, it’s important to get a prepaid college savings plan as soon as possible to lock in the tuition rate when it’s lower than ever. IF you wait until your child is 10 or 15 until you look into a savings plan, you will likely have to shell out a few thousand more at a minimum to cover the same plan with the same benefits for the same time period.
Prepaid tuition plans will cover the tuition side, but books and other expenses make up a big portion of a college student’s budget. Parents can also look at 529 plans for other academic expenses besides tuition.
The benefit of a 529 plan is that it doesn’t necessarily completely lock your child into a specific path for college. You may purchase a 2+2 plan - two years of community college, two years of a traditional four-year college - only for your child to decide they want to earn a degree entirely from the former or the latter, or even save the money for graduate school if they have long-term education plans.
Preparing for flexibility
Planning to save for your child’s college can be a difficult endeavor. After all, fluctuating costs means you don’t know exactly how much you’re saving, and your child’s own independent decision making could further complicate matters. What if they decide to go to trade school instead? What if they have their heart set on a private school and earn enough scholarships to pay for a good part of it?
Many 529s will offer some amount of flexibility on how you can spend them. Now, unless you don’t need the money because your child got a full scholarship, spending 529 money on anything other than academic expenses will come with a financial penalty of 10 percemt. But you can use funds saved in 529 plans for less-traditional means of education, including vocational schools. You may have to look into precisely how much value you’ll get out of the funds - it may be exactly what you put into it - but you’ll still get the benefit of the tax-free spending. You have no idea what your child will want to do with their future, but you can take steps now to help secure it, whatever it may be. And having the funds available will make all the difference in the world in terms of providing tangible options in life.