If you’re planning to shoulder all or some of the cost of your child’s college education, you’re giving your child a wonderful gift. And that’s just how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sees it — as a gift. Depending on the amount you offer, and whether you give it directly to your child or to the school, you could get hit with an additional expense, known as the gift tax.
Whenever you give someone money that is a gift, you automatically become subject to the gift tax. Whether you actually need to pay that tax, however, will depend on the size of the gift and what it was used for. Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to give your child money for college but avoid getting hit with any additional taxes.
What Is the Gift Tax?
According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) , the gift tax is “a tax on the transfer of property by one individual to another while receiving nothing, or less than full value, in return. The tax applies whether the donor intends the transfer to be a gift or not.”
That’s a lot of words to essentially mean that if you give someone a gift of property, including money, without getting something of equal value in return, that may be considered a gift. And if you’re gifting, it might be subject to the gift tax. In general, the gifter is responsible for paying the gift tax costs .
Before you start worrying if you’ll have to pay a gift tax on the $100 bill you slipped into your niece’s graduation card, it is important to know that the gift tax generally only affects large gifts.
This is because there is an “annual exclusion” for the gift tax, which means that gifts up to a certain amount are not subject to the gift tax. For 2023, the annual exclusion is $17,000; for 2024, it’s $18,000. If you and your spouse both gift money to your child, the annual exclusion is $34,000 in 2023, and $36,000 in 2024.
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Gifting Your Money Directly to Your Children
Children are not treated differently when it comes to the gift tax, which means that whether you’re gifting your neighbor money for being really great all those years, or transferring $20K to your son’s bank account to help him pay for college, the gifts are treated in the same way by the tax code.
This means that a gift you make to your child for the purpose of paying tuition or covering educational expenses may be subject to the gift tax if the gift exceeds $18,000 in 2024 (if you’re single) or $36,000 (if you’re married and making a joint gift).
With the average cost of attendance at a private university now exceeding $55,000 per academic year, it’s conceivable that you would end up giving your child a cash gift that exceeds the annual gift tax exemption.
One way around this is to gradually put money aside every year in a 529 account. Gifters can contribute up to $18,000 in 2024 to a 529 account per person, per year with no risk of getting hit with a gift tax. That means a married couple could gift up to $36,000 per account, per year in 2024 without having to pay a gift tax.
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Paying College Expenses Directly
In addition to the annual exclusion limit, the IRS also waives the gift tax for gifts that are used to pay tuition expenses. There’s no limit on how much you can pay but the caveat is that you have to give the money directly to your student’s school. Otherwise, any amount over the annual exclusion limit will be subject to the gift tax.
This means that, in some cases, it may save you some cash to pay the school directly rather than first giving the money to your child and having them use it for tuition. It is important to consider all your options, however, as gift tuition payments may impact the student’s need-based aid.
Other Ways to Pay for College
If you don’t have enough savings, or would rather not deplete your savings to pay for your child’s tuition and expenses, here are some other ways to help your child cover the cost of college.
Help Your Student Complete the FAFSA
Submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a critical step when it comes to getting federal student aid. While the FAFSA is the student’s responsibility, when a student is considered a dependent student for FAFSA purposes, parents have a large role in the application process. As a result, you as a parent can help make the process faster and easier.
The FAFSA is a gateway to several forms of financial aid, including grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans, so it’s worth filling out even if you don’t think you will qualify for aid. Many colleges also use the FAFSA when awarding institutional (merit-based) aid and some states use the form for certain state-based aid.
Take Out a Parent Loan
If your student has a gap in funding after tapping financial aid, including federal student loans, you might next look into parent student loans. You have two options: Parent PLUS Loans and private student loans. The best one for your situation generally depends on your credit history.
Here’s what to consider when looking at Parent PLUS Loans vs. private student loans.
Parent PLUS Loans
With Parent PLUS Loans, you can borrow up to the cost of the child’s attendance each year, minus any financial assistance that has been awarded, with no limit on the amount borrowed. This is true regardless of the parent’s income.
For Parent PLUS Loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2023, and before July 1, 2024, the interest rate is 8.05%, which is higher than most other federal student loans. There is also a loan fee of 4.228%. As federal loans, however, Parent PLUS loans have access to multiple government-sponsored repayment plans and forgiveness programs.
Parent PLUS loans are not subsidized, so interest begins to accrue on the outstanding loan balance as soon as funds are disbursed and continues to accrue even if you choose to defer making payments on the loan until after your child graduate’s college.
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Private Student Loan for Parents
If you have good or excellent credit, you may be able to qualify for a private student loan for parents that has a lower interest rate than a Parent Plus Loan. Depending on your credit, you could potentially see a difference of 2% or more. Over the course of a 10-year repayment period, that lower interest rate can add up to significant savings. Keep in mind, though, that private loans do not offer the same protections and benefits that automatically come federal education loans.
If you’re considering private student loans, be sure to check your rates with multiple lenders to find the right loan for you. You can typically browse rates without any impact to your credit score (prequalification generally involves a soft credit check).
💡 Quick Tip: Need a private student loan to cover your school bills? Because approval for a private student loan is based on creditworthiness, a cosigner may help a student get loan approval and a lower rate.
Paying for your child’s college education is considered a gift in the eyes of the IRS. However, parents can give up to $18,000 in cash to a child individually and $36,000 jointly in 2024 without getting hit with a gift tax. Parents can also pay for tuition directly to the college to avoid getting hit with a gift tax, with no upper limits.
You can reduce how much you’ll need to chip in for your child’s college expenses by helping your student fill out the FAFSA. This will give them access to scholarships, grants, work study, and federal student loans.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.
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