How to Start Saving for Your Child's College Tuition

By Samuel Becker · July 19, 2023 · 7 minute read

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How to Start Saving for Your Child's College Tuition

Saving for kids’ college expenses can be a massive undertaking, but a critically important one. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard the mantra that education is the key to a successful future for your child. You’re also likely aware that college isn’t cheap, and it isn’t getting cheaper.

The escalating costs of college may have you worried about how to pay for higher education. You’re smart to think about how to start saving for college, even if your kids are still young. If you truly want to give your child the gift of a college education and free them from overwhelming student debt, the time to plan is now.

When to Start Saving for Your Kids’ College Tuition

Generally speaking, the sooner you can start saving for your kids’ college fund or overall education, the better. Tuition, even at in-state public schools (which tend to be the least-expensive options for many people) are already in the four and five-figures territory, depending on where you live. And, as noted, it’s unlikely that costs are going to decrease in any meaningful way in the near future.

For parents who paid for college using student loans, emphasizing saving for their children’s college expenses may be a no-brainer. Those parents may benefit from looking through a student loan refinancing guide, too, to see if they can free up space in their budget to increase their capacity for saving – more on that in a minute.

Yes, there are schools that offer free tuition, but it’s probably best to plan on paying for attendance – you never know what could happen going forward.

With that in mind, it’s never too early to start socking away money for your children’s education. Getting a head start gives your money more time to grow over the long term and to rebound after any dips.

It also means you can recalibrate if your child seems to be on track for scholarships related to sports or academic achievements, or if your child decides to forgo college. Keep in mind that the money you save will generally affect the financial aid package your child qualifies for.

Before you launch a college savings plan for your kids, it’s best to have your other financial ducks in a row. You might first focus on paying off any credit card balances or other high-interest debt. Then you might want to make sure you’ve paid off your own student loans (or looked at student loan refinancing, at least) and saved an emergency fund (generally three to six months’ worth of living expenses), and are on track in terms of saving for retirement.

After all, your child always has the option to take out student loans, but you can’t rely on that to pay for a crisis or retirement. You wouldn’t want to have saved for your kids’ college only to burden them with your living expenses after you retire because you haven’t built a nest egg.

Again, if you’re still grappling with your own student loan debts, you can experiment with a student loan refinance calculator to see if refinancing can make it easier to pay it off, and put you in a better position to start saving for your child’s education.

The Best Ways to Save for Child’s College

If you’re ready to start saving for higher education, you may be tempted to keep that cash reserve in a savings account. While it might seem like that would protect your funds from market ups and downs, you might actually be losing money.

That’s because even accounts with the best interest rates aren’t keeping up with the pace of inflation. Especially if your child won’t be going to college for a while, investing your savings is a way you might see your money grow. Keep in mind that investments can lose money.

It’s also worth mentioning, again, that many parents may still be struggling with their own student loan debts. As such, it’s worth asking: should you refinance your student loans? It’s worth considering, at the very least, or speaking with a financial professional about if you think it may help you save for your child’s college expenses.

Here are some of the best ways to save for a child’s college:

529 Plans

A 529 plan, also known as a “qualified tuition plan,” allows you to save for education costs while taking advantage of tax benefits (the plan is named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code that governs it). 529 plans break down into two categories: educational savings plans and prepaid tuition plans.

Educational savings plans, which are sponsored by states, allow you to open an investment account for your child, who can use the money for tuition, fees, room and board, and other qualifying expenses at any college or university. You can also use up to $10,000 a year to pay for schooling costs before college.

You can invest the money in a variety of assets, including mutual funds or target-date funds based on when you expect your child to go to college. The specific tax benefit depends on your state and plan. Generally, you contribute after-tax money, your earnings grow tax-free, and you can withdraw the money for qualified expenses without paying taxes or penalties. If you withdraw money for anything else, you’ll pay a 10% tax penalty on earnings.

Not all states offer tax benefits, so be sure to look into this when choosing your plan.

💡 Quick Tip: All investments come with some degree of risk — and some are riskier than others. Before investing online, decide on your investment goals and how much risk you want to take.

Prepaid tuition plans, as you may expect, allow you to prepay tuition and fees at a college at current prices. These plans are only available at certain universities, usually public institutions, and often require you to live in the same state. A prepaid tuition plan can save you a lot of money, given how much college costs are increasing each year.

Depending on the state and the 529 plan, you may be able to deduct contributions from state income tax. However, if your prepaid tuition plan isn’t guaranteed by the state, you might lose money if the institution runs into financial trouble. You also run the risk that your child will choose to go to a school that’s outside the area covered by the plan.

Coverdell Education Savings Account

Like a 529 educational savings plan, a Coverdell ESA allows you to set up a savings account for someone under age 18 to pay for qualified education expenses. The money can be invested in a variety of stocks, bonds, or other assets, and grows tax-free.

Your contributions are not tax-deductible, and the plan is only available to people who earn under a certain income threshold.

When your child withdraws the funds for qualified educational expenses, they won’t pay taxes on it. The money can also pay for elementary or secondary education. But note that you can only contribute $2,000 per year to a Coverdell ESA per beneficiary.

UGMA and UTMA Accounts

You can open a Uniform Gifts to Minors Act or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act account on behalf of a beneficiary under 18, and all the assets in it will transfer to the minor when he or she becomes an adult (at age 18 to 25, depending on the state).

Young adults are able to use the funds for anything they want. That means they won’t be limited to qualified education expenses. Another plus is that you can contribute as much as you want. The downside is that there are no tax benefits when contributions are made. Earnings are taxable.

A custodial account is an irrevocable gift to the minor named as the beneficiary, who receives legal control of the account at the age of majority.

The Takeaway

Given the increasing costs of higher education, parents are smart to save for a child’s college early and often. But rather than keep the money in a savings account, they’d likely benefit by choosing an option that lets their money grow.

The more popular routes for doing so often involve 529 Plans, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, and UGMA and UTMA accounts. But you’ll need to do some thinking and research before deciding on the right strategy and accounts for you and your child. Just remember: The sooner you start saving, the better — generally speaking.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

For a limited time, opening and funding an Active Invest account gives you the opportunity to get up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.

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