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How to Save & Invest Money for College

By Evan Pierce

paying for collegeAs many people know, earning college grants and scholarships can be difficult – there is a great deal of competition, and even students who get excellent grades are denied. Unfortunately, it can also be difficult to obtain student loans – even though that money must be paid back with interest.

Funding your kids’ college expenses is certainly not as straightforward as you might think. Still, despite all the hurdles and difficulties, numerous opportunities exist that you can take advantage of by being creative and planning carefully.

The Rising Cost of Tuition

College tuition in the United States is expensive – and if you haven’t been paying attention, you may be in for a shock. According to a College Board report, students at four-year private colleges have the most expensive total cost of attendance. Factoring in tuition, fees, and room and board, the average “sticker price” for the 2011-2012 school year was a whopping $38,589, while in-state students at public four-year institutions paid an average of more than $17,000. The costs for out-of-state students at public four-year schools fell in between, with an average of $29,657.

College costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation. Over the past five years, tuition prices have risen an average of 5.6%, while inflation’s annual rise has been just under 3%. Predicting these costs is not a perfect science, but by most estimates, a four-year education at a private school will cost an average of more than $200,000 by 2016.

Start With a 529 College Savings Plan

If you plan to save for at least part of your children’s education, a 529 college savings plan is the best place to start. 529 plans are popular because you can invest money for college on a tax-advantaged basis. As long as the funds are used for qualified expenses, such as tuition, room, and board, you don’t need to pay taxes on the earnings when you withdraw them. You also won’t pay federal taxes (and, in most cases, state taxes) on any gains the account accrues while it is invested.

Furthermore, many states offer other benefits for investing in that state’s 529 plan, such as state income tax deductions on contributions, as well as matching grants. Keep in mind, you may only be eligible for these benefits if you participate in a 529 plan sponsored by your state of residence, so make sure you check your state’s tax code before investing.

Investing in a 529

Set up a 529 as a custodial account – the account is in your name, which means you own it, but your child is named as the beneficiary. Start by determining a target dollar amount for your child’s college costs; then, estimate a realistic rate of return and invest accordingly. Use an online college cost calculator to help figure out the amount of money you need to reach your goal. Since money in a 529 must be used for college expenses, take care in running these numbers to get as accurate an estimation as possible.

What you don’t want to do is invest too much. If you need to withdraw funds for non-college expenses, you will be faced with a stiff 10% penalty in addition to the ordinary income tax on the earnings withdrawn. However, you can change the beneficiary so another child or relative can make use of excess funds. That said, a better strategy to avoid “coming up short” or over-investing is to complement a 529 savings plan with other investment vehicles that function well for college expenses.

saving for college

Other Investment Vehicles

In addition to 529s, several other types of investment products can effectively help you save, and may offer additional ancillary benefits.

1. Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs are retirement accounts similar to a traditional IRA or a 401k, but unlike those accounts, you can withdraw contributions you’ve made to a Roth for any purpose without penalty. Additionally, you can withdraw earnings without incurring the 10% early withdrawal penalty if the funds are used for qualified education expenses. You will, however, have to pay tax on those earnings if you choose to withdraw more than the total of all your contributions.

2. Permanent Life Insurance

Permanent life insurance, like whole life insurance and universal life insurance, are plans in which there is an insurance component (the death benefit) and a cash component that can be partially withdrawn or borrowed against. Also, as an added perk, the cash value in a permanent life policy does not count as a liquid asset when colleges determine how much financial aid your child qualifies for.

When you borrow against your cash value, you don’t owe tax. However, you do have to pay interest on the loan. Borrowing against the investment component of the policy is a way to receive a portion of the investment (growth included) tax-free. On the other hand, if you make a withdrawal, you will owe tax on the earnings. You can set up these policies so that your heirs receive the death benefit plus the remaining cash value after you die – or, you can set them up so your beneficiaries receive the death benefit minus how much you borrowed from the policy.

Because permanent life insurance policies are varied and fairly complex, review your options carefully. It’s best not to invest in permanent life insurance for the savings component unless you have a legitimate life insurance need (and since you have one or more children, it’s likely that you do have a need).

Also, life insurance policies are not liquid investments – most have a surrender period during which time you pay a penalty to access your funds. Make sure you fully understand the ramifications of borrowing or withdrawing from a life insurance account before tapping into it to pay for college.

3. Fixed Annuities

Fixed annuities are a type of retirement account from which you can make withdrawals during retirement or receive a guaranteed income stream. Because money in a fixed annuity counts as retirement savings, colleges can’t look at it when determining how much financial aid you qualify for. However, the IRS charges a stiff penalty for early withdrawals. Furthermore, the annuity company levies a surrender charge if the annuity is substantially tapped during the surrender period, which is often the first five to seven years.

However, if you’re at least 59 1/2 years of age while your child is attending college, an annuity account could be an ideal way to save as long as it’s out of the surrender period by the time you need to tap it. But if you aren’t 59 1/2, an annuity is likely a very poor savings vehicle for anything other than your retirement.

Final Word

When it comes to paying for college, having a plan and sticking to it is the best way to go. Talk with your kids early on about what they should expect from mom and dad regarding assistance in paying for college. Speak to a qualified financial planner if necessary to better understand the ramifications of your choices, and find suitable investments.

Though having student debt can help your children appreciate the value of education and the sacrifices parents make, planning for and preparing for that debt is just as important. Of course, if your kids qualify for aid and college scholarships – that’s even better. But it’s not something to hinge your college savings plan on.

What other tips can you suggest to save – and pay – for college?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Evan Pierce
Evan Pierce has spent nearly 20 years as a commodity trader and market analyst. He is registered with the National Futures Association as a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) and has written and edited his own newsletter, The Position Sheet. He grew up in New Providence, New Jersey and now lives in Norwich, Vermont with his wife, three children, and their two Golden Retrievers.

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