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Saving for college: 3 steps to get started

The earlier you start, the more you can save for your kid’s college fund.

Saving for college is a big hurdle to overcome. For just one year at a public in-state college, the average cost is $27,940. An out-of-state public college cost averages $45,240 for one year. Private colleges are even more expensive, estimated to cost $57,570 per year(1).

Here are some methods, tips and accounts to consider when bulking up that college fund. And if you can’t save for it all, there are other ways to cover the cost of higher education.

3 steps on how to save for college

The sooner you start, the better your odds of achieving your college saving goals.

1. Estimate the cost and set a goal

You won’t know the exact cost of college until your child decides on one, but here are some averages you can use to estimate the cost when setting a savings goal:

  • Four years of in-state public college: $111,760
  • Four years of out-of-state public college: $180,960
  • Four years of private college: $230,280
  • Two years of community college: $10,310

The actual cost of attending college varies. Besides tuition, there are other costs to consider, such as textbooks, computers, room and board, living expenses and more. Aiming a little higher than these average costs can help cover all or most other college-related expenses.

Many students go to community college for a few semesters to take core classes at a lower tuition cost, which helps save money. Many AP and community college programs allow high schoolers to earn college credits before graduation. However, going out of state for college means paying more in tuition, because non-residents haven’t paid taxes to the state and, therefore, the school.

2. Choose the right savings account and contribute

There are specialized investment options designed for college expenses, such as 529 savings plans. These plans help bypass federal income taxes on the money you withdraw and might qualify for state tax deductions on your contributions.

There are also other ways to save for college without a 529 plan, such as a straight-forward, high-yield savings account. These accounts earn rates as high as 5% APY, which is much higher than the national average of 0.45%(2).

Regardless of the savings or investment option you choose, routine contributions are by far the most effective way to save. Just saving $200 a month for 18 years can mean saving $43,200, not counting any returns on your investment. If you choose a 5% APY high-yield savings account with that contribution schedule, you could increase your return to about $70,300 — that’s $27,100 more by just choosing an account with a high rate.

3. Look for scholarships

It’s still a good idea to have a set savings goal for your kid’s college fund, but you should also look for some free money. Scholarships are grants that can help cover education expenses — and you don’t have to repay them. Most scholarships are awarded for academic achievements or the student’s background. Some popular scholarship types to look into include:

  • Academic
  • Athletic
  • First in family
  • Government issued
  • Identity-based
  • Legacy
  • Leadership
  • Music
  • Need-based
  • Prestigious

How much should I save for college per month?

The amount you need to put away each month for a college fund depends on when you start saving, the estimated cost and your budget.

If we separate cost by the type of college and assume you’ll be saving for 18 years, here’s how much you’d have to save each month without any investment or interest earnings:

Type of four-year collegeEstimated tuition costRequired monthly savings to meet goal
In-state public college$111,760$517
Out-of-state public college$180,960$837
Private college$230,280$1,066

7 ways to save for college

Choosing the right savings account for your kid is a key factor in meeting a college funds’ saving goal. The right account for your situation can mean having to save less each month out of pocket — or even surpassing the original goal.

1. High-yield savings account

A high-yield savings account (HYSA) is just like a traditional savings account, except it offers higher yields. Instead of offering an APY around the national average — less than 1% — you can get rates well into the 5% range.

However, the downside with these is that you’re typically limited to six monthly transactions, there may be a minimum opening deposit requirement and they don’t come with tax advantages that many college savings plans offer.

2. Roth IRAs

A Roth IRA is a type of retirement account — but you can use the funds for college expenses. Roth IRAs don’t have employment or age restrictions, so you can open one for the benefit of your child. You can set aside after-tax income, so it offers tax-free growth.

But tax-free withdrawals are only available after age 59 ½, so college students won’t get that advantage. There are also contribution limits: Both traditional and Roth IRAs don’t allow you to contribute more than $6,000 per year. If you intend on saving for 18 years, a Roth IRA means you can only contribute up to $108,000.

3. 529 savings accounts

A very popular college fund option, 529 savings plans are investment accounts designed to help you save for a beneficiary’s college expenses with high contribution limits and tax benefits. Choose between a prepaid tuition option, which lets you purchase tuition credits, or a college savings plan, which lets you invest after-tax contributions into a variety of investments.

529 savings plans are worth it if you plan to use it toward qualifying educational expenses. If the funds aren’t used for education, you may get hit with a penalty fee and owe taxes. Also, these plans can impact student aid eligibility if the account is owned by the student.

4. UGMA and UTMA accounts

Custodial accounts like those under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) and Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) hold and protect funds until the beneficiary is 18 to 21 years old, depending on where you live. They allow the account holder to invest the funds in various securities and offer tax advantages, making them effective college savings options.

On the downside, these accounts are considered student assets, so they can lower a student’s eligibility when they apply for financial aid.

5. Savings bonds

The government issues College Savings or Federal Savings bonds as a safe investment vehicle. A savings bond earns a fixed interest rate and receives the principal amount plus interest at the date of maturity. Funds are difficult to access until maturity, which ensures the investment is used for its intended purpose. You might also be able to avoid taxes(3) on the interest earned if they’re used for college education.

But depending on the type of savings bond, it may take 20 to 30 years to fully mature, and there’s the upfront cost to consider, which can be anywhere from $25 to $10,000 to the penny(4). And if you don’t buy all the bonds at the same time or plan it out where they mature at the same time, you may not have all the funds available when your child enters college.

6. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

Similar to 529 savings plans, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts are custodial accounts that allow you to invest money toward future school expenses. You can invest the money in a number of securities with tax-free earnings growth and tax-free withdrawals when spent on eligible expenses. Unlike 529 plans, you can use Coverdell ESAs for primary and secondary school.

One of the biggest downsides is that you’re only allowed to contribute up to $2,000 per year, or a total of $36,000 for 18 years. But that total contribution limit doesn’t include possible earnings with your investment choices.

7. Whole life insurance

A whole life insurance policy can protect you and your family, but it can also be used to pay for college. And life insurance doesn’t count as an asset if your child has to apply for student aid.

Policies are broken down into a death benefit amount and a cash-value portion. Whole life insurance offers insurance for a lifetime and the premiums stay the same. With each premium you pay, part of it goes toward the cash value portion of your policy and grows on a tax-deferred basis. The interest rates are typically low, and you won’t be taxed — allowing it to be treated partially as a savings fund. After you’ve built up enough cash value, you can borrow from your policy, which you can do to cover college expenses.

But life insurance comes with a myriad of fees, and it can take between 10 to 15 years to accumulate enough cash to start borrowing against your policy. Also, you may have to pay interest on the loans against the policy.

How to compare accounts for college

Because many college savings plans 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 education.
  • Returns. Some accounts 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 accounts have contribution limits or income requirements. Know the limitations before opening an account.

Other ways to pay for college

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

  • Student loans. Federal and state financial aid programs can help cover outstanding college expenses, and they tend to have much lower interest rates than personal loans. There are also private student loans.
  • Personal loans. College students can take out personal loans to cover for college, but rates can get high, and repayment starts right away.
  • Grants, scholarships and bursaries. These 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(5).
  • Upromise. This program lets you sign up for free and link a financial account to earn loyalty rewards and deals. Using the card that comes with the account, you can get cashback rewards on purchases, online shopping, groceries and more. Cashback rewards can be deposited directly into your linked account to help with monthly contributions.

College costs not a major concern

While the cost of college is getting out of control, it’s a low on the list of worries for most Americans as just 42% say they are concerned about the cost of college compared to 86% who are worried about the price of gas.

Bottom line

If you start early, set goals and look for areas to save, your contributions toward a college fund for your kid could eventually make a huge impact. Compare the best investing options or bank accounts for your kid to find a product that fits your budget and goals.

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