How to save for college

Tuition costs are always on the rise — find out how to make your money go further.

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Students at school library

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The cost to attend a public, in-state college has increased at an average of 3.1% per year since 2008, according to the College Board’s annual survey of colleges. That steady increase brings the average cost of a four-year degree to $96,464. Student aid and scholarships can help pay college expenses, but every bit you can save helps combat student debt.

How to save for college

If you have kids that you plan to send to college, consider these essential steps to getting started.

1. Establish financial goals

To estimate how much you’ll need to save, think about how many kids you plan on sending to college, how many years of saving you have before then and how much you can afford to contribute.

Factor in costs beyond tuition, like housing, textbooks, food, extracurricular activities, tutors and transportation.

2. Pick an account that fits your goals

A traditional savings account is an option for growing your college fund. But more specialized products like 529 plans and Coverdell Savings accounts come with tax advantages, higher returns and savings incentives to help you save more.

3. Make regular contributions

Routine contributions are by far the most effective way to save for large purchases like college. If you can afford to put away $200 a month from the time your child is born, you’ll have $43,200 by the time they’re 18 — not counting any returns on your investment.

How much should I save for college?

The amount you should save varies significantly depending the degree, where you live, your budget, financial aid and other factors.

Based on four years of schooling, these are the essentials the College Board says you should budget for as of 2018:

  • Average tuition: $96,466
    • Public in state: $40,920
    • Public out of state: $105,160
    • Private nonprofit: $143,320
  • Average room and board: $46,613
    • Public in state: $44,560
    • Public in state: $44,560
    • Private nonprofit: $50,720
  • Average food: $12,720
  • Average books and supplies: $4,960
  • Average transportation: $4,640
  • Average other expenses: $5,630
  • Average total: $171,029

Most students don’t end up paying the full amount, thanks to financial aid and scholarships. Students are awarded an average $9,337 a year in grants and tax credits, which could reduce costs by $37,348.

  • Average total after financial aid: $133,681

Plan for expenses beyond the essentials that can affect how much you pay:

  • Extracurriculars: $2,000
  • Travel: $4,000
  • Study abroad and internships: $10,000
  • Printer, laptop and other equipment: $2,500
  • Extra courses: $2,500 to $10,000+

Best accounts to help you save for college

Name Product Minimum deposit to open Available asset types Pros
CollegeBacker
$0
Stocks
Bonds
Mutual funds
ETFs
  • Higher rates of return possible
  • Fees are optional
  • Friends and family can pitch in
An innovative way to start saving for college with help from your friends and family.
Fidelity Investments
$25,000
Stocks
Bonds
Mutual funds
ETFs
  • Planning and advice
  • Straightforward pricing
  • Robust investing tools
Get easy-to-use tools and the latest professional insights from a team of specialists.
Wealthfront
$500
Mutual funds
Index funds
ETFs
  • Reduce the taxes you pay
  • Start with a solid foundation
  • Invest for an annual low fee of 0.25%
Wealthfront builds a free financial plan for the life you want and automate your investments at a low cost.

Compare up to 4 providers

Name Product Interest rate (APY) Fee Minimum deposit to open More info
American Express® Personal Savings High Yield Savings
1.70%
$0
$0
Go to site
View details
Enjoy no monthly fees and a competitive APY with this online-only savings account. Accounts offered by American Express National Bank, Member FDIC.
Discover Online Savings Account
1.60%
$0
$0
Go to site
View details
Take advantage of a high-interest online savings account with no fees, no minimums and more.
Barclays Online Savings
1.60%
$0
$0
Go to site
View details
Earn 20x the national savings account average with no fees or minimums.
UFB Direct High Yield Savings
1.70%
$0
$100
Go to site
View details
Earn a competitive rate with a balance higher than $10,000.
BBVA Money Market
1.50%
$15 per month
(can be waived)
$25
Go to site
View details
Earn one of the highest annual percentage yields (APYs) if you live in one of 42 eligible states, and access your money by ATM, check or bill pay.
CIT Bank Savings Builder High Yield Savings Account
1.75%
$0
$100
Go to site
View details
Special offer: up to $300 sign up bonus. Commit to saving $100 a month and watch your savings stack up at 1.75% APY.

Compare up to 4 providers

Types of college savings accounts

A traditional savings account won’t offer the rates or compounding you’ll need to save adequately for education. College-focused accounts and plans are a more powerful way to save.

Compare savings plans

Traditional savings accounts529 savings accountsUGMA and UTMAsSavings bondsCoverdell Education savings accountsWhole life insurance
Monthly feesMaybeNoNoNoNoYes
Tax advantagesNoYesNoYesYesYes
Can be investedNoYesYesNoYesNo
Contribution, age or income limitsNoNoNoNoYesNo
Financial aid impactOnly if in child’s nameYesYesOnly if in child’s nameYesNo
Guaranteed returnsYesNoNoYesNoYes
PenaltiesNoOnly when used for ineligible expensesOnly when used for ineligible expensesNoOnly when used for ineligible expensesNo
Avoid tuition increasesNoYesNoNoNoNo
Only for educationNoYesNoNoYesNo

Can I use a Roth IRA to save for college?

Yes. Though it’s technically designed for retirement savings, you can withdraw contributions from your Roth IRA without penalties. Though you may be on the hook for taxes if the money is used for a family member’s college expenses.

Pros

  • Tax-deferred growth
  • Wide range of investment options

Cons

  • Potential tax and penalties
  • Market risk
  • Fewer tax advantages

How to compare accounts for college

Because many college savings plan include investments, consider speaking with a financial adviser or accountant for guidance on:

  • Fees and taxes. Understand the fees and penalties you face before signing up, and compare tax advantages to ensure you get the most out of your account.
  • Investment options. To invest your savings, learn which products are available within each account.
  • Access. Consider how you’re allowed to access your savings, and find out whether you can use the money for educatoin.
  • Returns. Some options offer lower returns at a lower risk, while others have the potential to earn more at a greater risk. Weigh your options to find a balance you’re comfortable with.
  • Eligibility. Some of these options have contribution limits or income requirements. Know the limitations before opening an account.

Tips to save for college

  • Start early. The best way to save for college is to start early. Ideally, you want to start as soon as your child is born, but it’s never too late.
  • Save in a joint account. If you don’t already have one, a joint savings account can help you and a partner save and earn interest together.
  • Encourage early credits. Many AP and community college programs allow high-schoolers to earn college credits before graduation, which can save you a semester’s costs or more.
  • Automate it. Set up autopay or consider a roundup app to make recurring contributions without even thinking about it.
  • Invest unexpected cash. Whether you get a bonus, receive an inheritance or pay down other debts, consider redirecting extra money into your college savings plan.

Other ways to pay for college

Even with so many options available to save for their education, most people won’t have enough to cover the full cost of college. Luckily, other options can help you fund your child’s education:

  • Student loans. Federal and state financial aid programs can help cover outstanding college expenses and they have much lower interest rates than personal loans.
  • Crowdfunding. Consider a website like CollegeBacker that allows you to get help from friends and family as you save for college.
  • Grants, scholarships and bursaries. Take advantage of grants, scholarships and bursaries that could offset costs. It doesn’t hurt to apply, so look for any that seem even remotely relevant.
  • Tax credits. Claim up to $2,500 per student, per year with the American Opportunity credit. If you don’t qualify, the Lifetime Learning Credit allows you to claim up to $2,000 per student, per year. Speak with an accountant or tax specialist for more details.
  • Upromise. This loyalty program is a subsidiary of Sallie Mae and offers cash back on eligible purchases that go toward tuition to make it easier to save for college and repay student loans.

Bottom line

If you start early, set goals and look for areas to save, your college fund contributions could eventually have a huge impact. Compare the best student savings accounts to find a product that’s fits your budget and goals.

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