Saving for College: Strategies for Success

Key Points

  • Saving early for college offers greater flexibility and reduces the need for student loans. 
  • We'll cover college costs and how best to achieve your savings goals.
  • Helpful information for anyone with children.

It's never too early to start investing for a child's college education. There are no guarantees with the market, but the longer your time horizon, the better—the sooner you start, the more time your money has to potentially benefit from the power of compound growth, which is growth on top of growth.

If you want to keep up with rising college costs, you should try to invest for growth. Historically, stocks have offered the best chance for your money to grow over the long term. If college is 10 or more years away, consider investing primarily in stocks and/or stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).1 Then, gradually move those funds to more conservative holdings as your child nears college age.

Is it ever too late to start?

What if you've put off saving, and college is only a couple of years away for your child? Should you skip saving altogether and hope for financial aid or fall back on loans? Not necessarily—saving late is better than not saving at all. Remember, college costs don't arrive all at once; they trickle in over four years (at least). Even if you wait until the last minute, you still have an opportunity to invest for college. If you're in this situation, you'll want to consider investments with a shorter time horizon.

College vs. Retirement

Don't raid your retirement savings to fund your children's college education. You and your child can find other ways to pay for college, such as student loans, scholarships and financial aid. If you need money for retirement, on the other hand, you'll have a hard time convincing a bank to give you a retirement loan.

The first part of your strategy: Choosing the right account for you

The government has created two accounts—529 plans and Education Savings Accounts (also known as Coverdells)—to help you save for your children's college education. These accounts provide many advantages over custodial accounts, general brokerage accounts and savings accounts.

  • A 529 plan is a state-sponsored program that allows parents, relatives and friends to invest for a child's college education. Generally, you can choose from a selection of age-based or static investment portfolios that are professionally managed by the program's fund manager. The account belongs to you, not your child, and any potential earnings grow tax-deferred—which means that your money has a chance to compound faster because you don't have to pay taxes on current investment income or capital gains. What's more, you pay no federal taxes on withdrawals as long as they're used to pay for qualified educational expenses.

    529 plans don't limit how much you can contribute per year. Instead, they have a lifetime contribution limit (often greater than $200,000) per beneficiary that varies by state.
  • An Education Savings Account (ESA) is managed by you on behalf of your child. You can invest the money you contribute to an ESA in stocks, bonds, mutual funds—pretty much whatever you're comfortable with. When your child turns 18, you can choose to hand over the reins or continue managing the account yourself.

    ESAs provide tax advantages similar to 529 plans: Your money grows tax-free and you pay no taxes on withdrawals if they're used to pay for qualified educational expenses. However, ESAs can be used for certain elementary or secondary school expenses as well as for college expenses. You can contribute a maximum of $2,000 annually, if you qualify.2
  • A custodial account is an account managed by a parent or guardian on behalf of a child. The money belongs irrevocably to the child, so if you're managing a custodial account for your daughter, when she turns 18, 21 or 25 (depending on the state rules governing the account), she can use the money for anything she wants—a new car or a European vacation, for instance.

    Custodial accounts offer minor tax advantages and have no restrictions on how the money can be spent, as long as it's for the benefit of the child. If you want to set aside money for expenses that aren't covered by an ESA or 529 plan—sorority dues or private voice lessons, for example—a custodial account may be just the thing.
  • You can use a brokerage account to invest for college, but it offers no tax advantages. A 529 plan, an ESA or even a custodial account is probably a better choice. However, supplementing your tax-advantaged college investments with a taxable brokerage account sometimes makes sense—for example, if you want to save money for nonqualified college expenses and maintain control of the money.
  • A savings account may be a place to put away a few dollars for a rainy day, but it's a poor choice for college savings. Historically, savings accounts usually don't even keep up with inflation, much less rising college costs.

The second part of your strategy: When and how to invest your money

18 years before college

  • Open the account of your choice and contribute money every month, perhaps by signing up for an automatic investment plan. Contribute extra money whenever possible.
  • If appropriate given your risk tolerance, invest the money in stocks or stock mutual funds (or ETFs) for long-term growth.

Eight to 10 years before college

  • Has anything changed in your life? A new baby? A better-paying job? Consider these changes and recalculate your needs.
  • If you haven't yet opened an account, do so right away. You may want to go with a 529 plan, which allows much larger lump sum contributions and may give you a chance to make up for lost time.
  • Contribute any windfall money to your college savings account.

One to two years before college

  • Several years out, you can ballpark your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—a number that financial aid officers use to determine a student's financial need—using an online calculator such as the College Board's EFC Calculator. This will give you some idea of what results to expect when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which generates the official EFC that most schools rely on.
  • Fill out the FAFSA as soon after January 1 as possible in the year your child expects to enroll. It's worth filling out even if you don't expect your child to qualify for aid based on your income, because the FAFSA considers other factors (such as cost of living, family size, the number of family members in college, and the age of the older parent) to determine a student's eligibility for federal and state grants, work-study programs, and loans.
  • Look into other options for financial aid and scholarships. 
  • Reassess the risk level in your accounts. As college approaches, consider moving the money into less risky investments, such as shorter-term bonds and money market funds.  

Comparing 529 Plans, Coverdell ESAs and Custodial Accounts

 

529 college savings plan

Education Savings Account

Custodial account

Description

A state-sponsored, tax-deferred college investment program

An education savings account set up and managed by a parent or guardian for the benefit of a minor

A brokerage account managed by a custodian. Money can be used for college or any other purpose

Earnings

Tax-deferred

Tax-deferred

Child under 192

  • First $1,000 tax-free

  • Next $1,000 taxed at child's rate

  • Any amount over $2,000 taxed at adult's rate

Child 19 and over2

  • First $1,000 tax-free

  • Any amount over $1,000 taxed at child's rate

Amount that can be contributed without the donor owing gift taxes

Up to $70,000 ($140,000 per couple) per beneficiary in a single year if contributor elects to recognize that gift over five years for tax purposes and makes no additional gifts to that beneficiary over the next five years

N/A

Up to $14,000 ($28,000 per couple) per beneficiary in a single year

Withdrawals

Federal-tax-free when used for qualified education expenses

Federal-tax-free when used for qualified education expenses

No special tax advantage

Contribution limits

Lifetime limit per beneficiary that ranges by state, generally upward of $200,000 per beneficiary

$2,000 per year, subject to adjusted gross income limitations (phase-out: $190,000– $220,000, married filing jointly; $95,000– $110,000, single)

No limit

Penalty for nonqualified use

Earnings taxed as ordinary income and may be subject to a 10% federal penalty

Earnings taxed as ordinary income and may be subject to a 10% federal penalty

N/A

Investment choices

Choice of investment portfolios that are managed by state's plan administrator

Managed by parent or guardian

Managed by custodian until account is turned over to beneficiary at age 18, 21 or 25, depending on state

Impact on financial aid

May minimally impact financial aid. Guidance from the Department of Education says that 529 plans are counted as assets of the parent or account owner in determining financial aid

May minimally impact financial aid. Guidance from the Department of Education says that ESAs are counted as assets of the parent or account owner in determining financial aid

May significantly impact financial aid

Age limits

No age limit on beneficiaries

Beneficiary must be under 18. All assets must be distributed by child's 30th birthday

Beneficiary must be under 18

 

   Was this helpful?  

Subscribe:

Subscribe to Emails (clients only) Subscribe via RSS Download the On Investing® iPad® App

Important Disclosures