You know you were supposed to start saving for college when your child was born. But maybe you didn’t.
The money you meant to save, you spent—on diapers, preschool tuition, and now, soccer cleats. With college only a decade away, what can you do today besides kick yourself?
Don’t despair. You can catch up in the college-savings race by making these six moves now:
1. Set a savings goal. You can use any of many online calculators to figure out how much money you should stash away each month for college. (Here’s the MONEY College Planner’s free savings calculator.) Just don’t let the number that the software spits out discourage you from saving anything.
A financial planner once told my husband and me that we’d cover the cost of BAs for our two daughters if we saved $1,410.58 a month. Our projected cost for the first year that the girls would both be in college was $174,511.
We couldn’t save anywhere near $1,410.58 a month. Moreover, the killer year we worried about actually cost (only) $64,500. Tuition didn’t increase nearly as much as we assumed it would, and both kids scored merit scholarships.
So don’t fret if you can’t sock away the huge sum that a calculator says you must. Forget about saving enough to cover every cent of your kids’ college expenses. Instead, aim to save about one third of the cost, advises college financing expert Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of Cappex.com. You can cover another third with financial aid and the income you earn while your kids are in college, and you can borrow the final third.
2. Open a 529 if you don’t already have one. These savings plans are your best bet for catching up quickly. Your contributions will grow tax-free and you can use withdrawals to pay qualified education expenses, such as tuition, books, and some room and board costs. The sooner you start contributing to a 529, the more time you’ll have for compound interest to work its magic on your account balance.
What’s more, 33 states and the District of Columbia give state tax deductions or credits for 529 contributions. You can compare tax benefits, fees, and investment performance at Savingforcollege.com.
3. Put your savings on autopilot. “Pay yourself first” may be the biggest cliché in personal finance, but let’s face it, it works. When you open a 529, connect it to your checking account. Then set it up so that the amount you aim to save passes automatically from your bank to your 529 each month.
4. Get grandparents on board. Chances are you won’t have to do much convincing. When giving gifts to grandchildren, most grandparents would rather write a check for a college fund than buy yet another gift card to a preteen clothing store that traffics in short skirts and sloppy hoodies.
It’s even better if grandparents can afford to contribute a large sum immediately. Anyone can put up to $70,000 at a time in any one child’s 529 plan ($140,000 for married couples giving jointly) every five years without reducing his or her $5.45 million ($10.9 million for married couples) federal estate-tax exemption. With 10 years to go until college, it’s ideal to save as much as possible in the first few years, so your investments have more time to grow.
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5. Invest in stocks. You won’t create a substantial college fund if you avoid all investment risk, especially when interest rates are so low. So plan to invest some of your college savings in stocks. How much depends, in part, on your personal tolerance for risk. As a guideline, consider that the Vanguard Group offers three age-based portfolios for 6- to 10-year-olds. The most aggressive option holds 75 percent in stocks and 25 percent in bonds, while the reverse is true for the most conservative portfolio. The middle choice offers a 50-50 split.
6. Groom junior for academic glory. The brainier your kid, the less you’ll probably pay for college. “The more attractive you are to a school, the more likely you’ll get money from it. Colleges will pay for high grades and high test scores,” says financial aid consultant Kalman A. Chany, author of Paying For College Without Going Broke (Princeton Review).
You can’t expect a kid who’s never had to work hard to suddenly become a high achiever in high school, however. Now is the time to lay the groundwork for your child’s academic success, advises Chany. So if your local elementary school isn’t challenging, it may even be worth considering a move to a better school district or a switch to a private school.