The right time is right now to start saving for college. But don’t despair if you think you may have waited too long. It’s never too late to prepare a financial plan that can pay for higher education, daily expenses and also leave you with enough to put toward retirement.
But, how exactly do you do it?
Whether your child is a tot or a teen, you can start very simply by putting away just a teensy bit of money a month for his or her higher education, says Gail Perry-Mason, founder of the Detroit-based organization Money Matters for Youth. A little can go a long way.
“Parents need to start saving wherever they are in the process,” says Perry-Mason, 52, who is also the mother of three college-educated sons. “Children can get scholarships and we as parents and older adults cannot [get scholarships for] our retirement, which is why we should never take from our 401K.”
It’s tempting to try to absorb the cost for yourself, but Perry-Mason urges students to apply for scholarships and grants to help pay for rapidly increasing tuition costs. This route is not easy. She’s the first to admit that. After all, The College Board reports that tuition for a “moderate” in-state public college for the 2014–2015 academic year averaged $23,410, and tuition for the same academic year at a private college averaged $46,272.
So, how did Perry-Mason work it for her own family?
She used a mix of savings and scholarships to finish paying college expenses for her sons. Brandon, 30, graduated from Wharton Business School; Dexter, 24, recently received a master’s degree from Georgetown University; and Scott, 21, is a senior at Lake Forest College.
Here are some tips to help parents and kids pay for college tuition and expenses:
“B” for borrow: If parents do not have savings set aside, the children can always borrow what they need. Web sites such as fastweb and collegebound offer helpful resources for families and students.
Do your homework: Groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and nonprofits including Rainbow PUSH offer grants and scholarships. The key here is to ask everyone for scholarship information.
Save, save, save: If it takes a village to raise children,it takes a village to send them to college, says Perry-Mason. “It should be a family affair when it comes to education,” she advises. “Just like aunts and uncles come together for proms and birthdays, college savings should also be a family affair. It should not just be on one person, because college tuition is so expensive. And just as we have Christmas savings accounts, families should have education savings accounts.”
Be Creative: Another trick is to empty change from your purse and wallet and take it to the bank for deposit as soon as you reach $25 to $50. That’s not taxing. “We have a lot of families living paycheck to paycheck, so you don’t want saving to be stressful,” says Perry-Mason. “Start early if you can, or start exactly where you are. Once you read this, you should start saving. You can start at $25 a month and gradually increase the amount, but start saving.”
Establish a bank trust: Trust accounts allow trustees to authorize bank payments and deposits for a minor’s education, among other things. “It’s great to say my child has a trust instead of just saying in God we trust,” Perry-Mason says.
Invest in a 529 savings plan: These are tax-advantaged savings plans designed to help parents and families set cash aside for the future higher education expenses of a designated beneficiary. The plans are named for Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code and are run by state agencies and organizations.
All withdrawals from 529 plans for qualified education expenses will remain free from federal income tax. There are two types of plans: prepaid tuition plans and savings plans. There are currently 13 Prepaid Tuition Plans (sometimes called guaranteed savings plans) offered by 12 states and one not-for-profit organization, which allow for the pre-purchase of tuition based on today’s rates which are then paid out at the future cost when the beneficiary is in college, according to College Savings Plans Network.
Take out a PLUS loan: PLUS loans are federal loans, set at a 6.84 percent fixed rate, that graduate students and parents of dependent undergraduate students can use to help pay for college or career school. There is a loan fee.
“As parents, we cannot afford not to save for our child’s education,” Perry-Mason says. “It’s one of the best investments we can make. The returns on investing in our children are priceless. We should also teach our children financial literacy and the importance of saving, investing and wise spending. If they can save for a video game, they can save for college.”
Consider an Education Savings Account
In addition to Perry-Mason’s recommendations, you might want to review an education savings account as an option: Coverdell Education Savings Accounts are similar to 529 savings accounts, except they have annual contribution limits of $2,000. The accounts are designed for parents whose modified adjusted gross income for the year is less than $110,000. Contributions are not deductible, but amounts deposited in the account grow tax-free until distributed. Urban Partnership Bank in Chicago is among the many banks that offer this type of account.
Gail Perry-Mason is founder of “Money Matters for Youth,” a one-week camp that teaches financial literacy to children and has instructed more than 6,000 young people in the Detroit-Metro area. She has also mentored more than 25 young women who are now professionals in the financial industry. She is co-author of Girl, Make Your Money Grow, with Glinda Bridgforth.