Essential Guide to Saving for College Successfully

Anders Skagerberg CFP, EA
Essential Guide to Saving for College Successfully

Saving for college is an important financial goal for many parents, but getting started can feel overwhelming. 

And with college costs increasing by roughly 180% over the last four decades, many parents are confused about how much they need to save to stay on track.

But, as parents, taking steps to ensure your child's future success by saving for college is an important financial choice. This comprehensive guide explores the importance of starting early and understanding how compound interest can help boost your college savings.

We will also explore different account types like 529 plans, their tax advantages, and how they can accept gift contributions. We will also discuss alternative account types, such as Coverdell ESAs and brokerage accounts, to give you various choices when saving for college costs.

Lastly, we will explore the importance of teaching your kids financial responsibility and budgeting principles while prioritizing your own financial goals in the process.

And remember, seeking professional advice might be necessary to reach your financial goals. So be sure to read to the end, where we discuss how to find a trusted advisor to help you plan for your children’s future.

The Importance of Saving Early for College

Saving early and often is critical as college tuition keeps climbing. 

The sooner you begin, the longer your money has to grow and compound through a powerful force known as compound interest. This force can turn small savings into large sums over time and give you a significant head-start when saving for your child’s college education.

Understanding Compound Interest

Compound interest works by earning interest on both your initial investment and any accumulated interest from previous periods. Over time, this can lead to exponential growth of your savings. 

For example, if you invest $100 and earn 10% per year, you would have made $10 after one year, with a total savings of $110. But, in year 2, you’ll earn 10% of $110, which is $11. This continues on and on, slowly increasing the amount of interest you make each year, leading to exponential growth.

Benefits of Starting Early

  • Growth Potential: The earlier you start saving, the more time your money has to grow through compounding.

  • Fewer Financial Burdens: Starting early makes you less likely to face financial stress when it's time for college enrollment.

  • Better Preparedness: Having funds set aside gives peace of mind knowing that future educational expenses are covered.

Planning ahead for future educational costs isn't just wise, it's essential. And remember: It's never too soon. So, start saving early and let the power of compound interest work its magic. Your future self will thank you.

529 Plans: The Smart Way to Save for College

You know you want to save, but now you need to figure out where to save. A 529 plan is a savvy solution to build up funds over time. These accounts are designed for educational costs and offer potential tax benefits and investment options.

How Does a 529 Plan Work?

A 529 plan offers a way to invest money for educational costs, allowing investments that can grow tax-free, so long as they are used for qualified education expenses such as tuition, certain textbooks, and other related fees. Each state has a unique 529 plan, but you can enroll in any state's plan, so be sure to do your research and select the best plan for you. 

Tax Advantages of 529 Plans

Accepting Gift Contributions Through 529 Plans

In addition, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends can all contribute to your child’s 529 plan. It's a great way for family and friends to help fund future education expenses. Learn more about gifting to a 529 plan.

Remember, a 529 plan is a smart way to save for your child’s future. So start saving today and watch your money grow.

Alternatives to 529 Plans—Coverdell ESAs and Brokerage Accounts

If you're looking for options beyond a 529 plan, consider the Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or a brokerage account. Both offer unique benefits that could better suit your family's needs.

Overview of Coverdell ESAs

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and 529 plans are both tax-advantaged savings plans for education expenses, but there are some critical differences between the two. Coverdell ESAs have lower contribution limits ($2,000 per year) and income limits, while 529 plans have higher contribution limits and no income limits. Additionally, 529 plans offer a wider range of investment options. For these reasons, 529 plans are often considered a better option for college savings than Coverdell ESAs.

Overview of Brokerage Accounts

Brokerage accounts are a flexible way to save for college because you can use the money for any purpose, but they don't offer the same tax advantages as a 529 plan. If you want to save for college flexibly or if you're saving into a 529 plan but want to avoid overfunding it, a brokerage account can be a good option. If you plan to use both a brokerage account and a 529 plan, contribute to the 529 in the first several years to maximize potential tax-free growth and save in the brokerage account in later years.

In summary, while saving for college is crucial, exploring different avenues like Coverdell ESAs and brokerage accounts allows families to find the best fit based on their circumstances and plans. So be sure to explore all available choices and pick carefully.

Encouraging Financial Responsibility Among Youngsters

Saving for your child’s education can be a perfect opportunity to help them foster their sense of financial savvy and responsibility. One way to do this is by setting up custodial accounts or teaching them budgeting principles.

Creating Custodial Accounts (UTMA/UGMA)

Custodial accounts, also known as UTMA or UGMAs, are an excellent way for parents to help children save money while teaching them about investing and budgeting. The funds in these accounts can be used for any purpose that benefits the child, including college expenses. But, when your child reaches the age of majority (18 in most states), they will have complete legal control over their account and can use the funds as they please, so be sure to plan accordingly.

The "50-30-20" Budgeting Principle

Teaching kids about managing money can be made easy with the "50-30-20" rule. It involves allocating 50% of income towards needs (like food and housing), 30% towards wants (such as entertainment), and saving the remaining 20%. By following this simple budgeting principle, they will learn valuable lessons on balancing spending with saving at an early age.

Prioritizing Your Own Financial Security Before Saving For Your Child's Education

When saving for your child’s education, it’s critical to ensure you aren’t jeopardizing your financial goals. As challenging as it can be to accept, your own financial security should take precedence over saving for your child's education

Striking a Balance Between Your Financial Goals and Your Child’s College Savings

Think of it like being on an airplane during an emergency—you must secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. The same is true with your finances. You must ensure that you have an emergency fund, are on track for retirement, and can handle your cash flow needs each month before tackling your child’s future college needs.

And a great way to start is by creating a solid financial plan. This will help you and your family outline the key steps you need to take to ensure your financial success, both now and in the future. 

Struggling to Meet Goals? Seek Professional Financial Advice

If you’re struggling to meet your goals, it could be time to seek professional financial advice. A trusted advisor can help you understand where you are now versus where you want to be and help you draw a map to get you there, complete with specific budgeting, investment, insurance, and estate planning advice.

Choosing the Right Advisor

But, not all advisors are equal in their expertise, so it’s essential to find a trusted, proven, and expert advisor. Here are some things to look for:

  • Experience: Look for an advisor with a proven track record in helping clients save for college education.

  • Credentials: Check their qualifications and whether they are certified by reputable bodies like the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (CFP).

  • Fees: Understand how they charge—is it a flat fee or based on a percentage of assets managed?

While involving a professional may seem like an additional expense, it can be a powerful investment in your child's future education.  Professional advice can help you make the most of your money and maximize your college savings. And it can provide peace of mind that you’re doing everything possible to ensure your child can access the best education.

By thoroughly researching advisors and selecting one who meets all the criteria above, you can be sure you're making a wise investment in your family's future. 

FAQs in Relation to Saving for College

Is It Wise To Save Money For College?

Yes, as a parent, saving money for your child's college education is a wise decision. By doing so, you'll have the funds readily available to cover tuition fees, books, and other expenses, reducing the reliance on loans and easing the financial burden in the future.

Why Is It Important To Save For College?

Saving for college is crucial because it helps cover the high cost of tuition and other expenses and can prevent students from being burdened with excessive debt after graduation.

When Should You Start Saving Money For College?

The earlier, the better—ideally when your child is born. This allows maximum benefit from compound interest over time. More details here.

What Is The Best Way To Save Money For College?

There are many ways to save for college, including 529 plans, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, and brokerage accounts. 

Generally, the best way to save money for college is to utilize a dedicated college savings account, such as a 529 plan, which offers tax advantages and potential investment growth over time. Regularly contributing to the account and taking advantage of any state-specific benefits can help maximize your savings and make college more affordable.

What Are Some Common Mistakes To Avoid When Saving For College?

Avoid investing too aggressively or conservatively, failing to consider financial aid, and not saving enough. Read more here.


Investing in your child's future by saving for college is a smart move, and starting early with tools like 529 plans, Coverdell ESAs, and brokerage accounts can help ease the financial burden of higher education.

Teaching financial responsibility through custodial accounts and budgeting principles like the "50-30-20" rule can also instill valuable money management skills in your children.

But remember to prioritize your own financial goals and seek professional advice if you're struggling to meet your savings targets. And remember, no matter where you are in the college savings journey, it's never too late to start.

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Anders Skagerberg CFP, EA Personal Finance Writer

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