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Strategies to Save For Your Child’s College Education

Matthew Levy Updated: June 27, 2023 • 8 min read
mother with college graduate

Starting early with a solid savings plan is essential when planning for your child's college education. The average cost of tuition plus room and board at a public four-year university in the U.S. is about $25,707 per year for in-state students, and it climbs to around $54,501 for private institutions, and remember, these costs tend to rise every year. So the sooner you start saving, the better prepared you'll be to tackle these mounting expenses.

Step-by-Step Guide: Saving for College

Here's a simple guide to help you navigate through the process of saving for your child's college fund:

  1. Start saving early (ideally, at birth!): The sooner you start saving, the more time your money has to grow through the power of compounding. 
  2. Budget appropriately over your child’s lifetime: Increase your college savings contributions as your income and lifestyle changes. For example, when your children are young, you may spend more money on essentials like day care. You may find it easier to save as they get older and you have fewer childcare expenses.
  3. Decide on your savings strategy: There are plenty of college savings strategies, which we'll outline below. Weigh the pros and cons of each, and if necessary, consult a financial advisor to help guide your decision.
  4. Have honest conversations about costs: As your child grows older, discuss the importance of saving for college and encourage them to contribute, perhaps from part-time job earnings or monetary gifts.
  5. Take steps to lower college costs: Apply for scholarships, seek federal aid, consider in-state tuition benefits, and explore community college or online learning options. Remember, every dollar saved is a dollar less you need to save.

With these steps in mind, saving for your child's college fund can become manageable and rewarding.

Start by Saving a Little Each Month, Even on a Low Income

Even small, consistent contributions can significantly impact your child's college savings fund over time. One of the practical college savings options you can adopt is to start by saving a little each month.

While a modest monthly contribution might seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the total cost of college, it can accumulate substantially over time.

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College Savings in Action: The Power of Compounding Interest

Let's delve into a real-world example of saving just a small amount each month. Say you decide to open a college savings account upon your child's birth, starting with an initial deposit of $200. From then onwards, you pledge to save $50 per month until your child reaches the age of 18.

Let's break down the math to illustrate the true power of consistent saving and compounding interest:

  • In the first year, your total deposit consists of the $200 initial deposit + $600 (12 months x $50/month), equaling $800.
  • By maintaining your $50 monthly deposit for the following 17 years, you contribute an additional $10,200 (204 months x $50/month), bringing your total contribution over 18 years to $11,000.

However, that's just your contribution. Here's where the power of compounding comes into play. If you assume a modest return rate of 5% compounded annually:

  • The $800 saved in the first year grows to about $846 by the end of the second year, thanks to the 5% interest.
  • As you continue to deposit $50 monthly and earn compounded interest, by the end of the 18 years, the college savings account will have grown to approximately $18,025.

While $18,025 might not cover the total cost of four years of college, it undeniably goes a long way in offsetting the burden. And remember, as your income grows over time, increasing your monthly savings could result in even more significant growth in the fund.

Fund your child college

Tax-Friendly Ways to Save for College

When it comes to saving for your child’s college education, certain vehicles can give your savings an extra boost through tax advantages. Remember, the best way to save for kids' college often involves a mix of these options, tailored to your circumstances and goals. Let’s dive into some of these strategies and uncover how they might suit your specific situation.

529 Plans: Education Savings Plans

A 529 Plan is a specialized investment account designed to encourage savings for future college costs. These plans are named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, which created these types of savings accounts in 1996.

Individual states typically sponsor 529 Plans, but they are not exclusive to state residents, meaning you can enroll in any state's plan. There are two types of 529 plans: college savings and prepaid tuition.

  • College Savings Plans work much like a Roth 401k or Roth IRA by investing your after-tax contributions in mutual funds or similar investments. Your account will go up or down in value based on the performance of your selected option.
  • Prepaid Tuition Plans let you pay for future tuition (and sometimes, room and board) at today's rates for the schools participating.

529 Plans Pros:

  • Earnings in a 529 plan grow federal (and often state) tax-free and will not be taxed when the money is taken out to pay for college.
  • Many states offer tax deductions or credits for contributions made to a 529 plan.

529 Plans Cons:

  • Funds withdrawn from a 529 plan that are not used for the beneficiary's qualified education expenses are subject to income tax and an additional 10% penalty on the earnings.
  • Limited investment options compared to other types of savings accounts.

Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA)

A Coverdell ESA is a federally sponsored, tax-advantaged trust or custodial account set up to pay for qualified education expenses.

You can think of a Coverdell ESA as a type of investment account designed to help families save for both primary and secondary education expenses and higher education costs. The beneficiary of a Coverdell ESA must be under 18 years old when the account is established (with some exceptions for special needs individuals).


ESA Pros:

  • Contributions to a Coverdell ESA grow tax-free, and withdrawals are also tax-free as long as they are used for qualified education expenses.
  • Unlike a 529 plan, funds from a Coverdell ESA can be used for K-12 expenses and post-secondary education costs.

ESA Cons:

  • The total contributions for the beneficiary of this account cannot be more than $2,000 in any year, no matter how many accounts have been established.
  • There are income restrictions on who can contribute to a Coverdell ESA.

Roth IRA

A Roth IRA is an individual retirement account where you contribute post-tax income. Any withdrawals you make after age 59.5 are tax-free, making it an appealing choice for many looking to safeguard their financial future. While typically associated with retirement, a Roth IRA can be repurposed to assist with education costs. A Roth IRA can be an effective way to save for college because you can withdraw your contributions (not the earnings) at any time without penalty or tax.

Roth IRA Pros:

  • Flexibility: You can withdraw your contributions at any point, which means you can tap into this fund for education expenses.
  • No mandatory distributions: Unlike certain retirement accounts, Roth IRAs don't require you to start taking distributions at a certain age.

Roth IRA Cons:

  • Income limits: To contribute to a Roth IRA, your income must be below a certain threshold. As of 2023, the income limit for single filers is $144,000, and for married couples filing jointly, it's $214,000.
  • Contribution limits: How much you can contribute to a Roth IRA each year is limited. As of 2023, the maximum annual contribution is $6,500, or $7,500 for those aged 50 and over.

Please remember that while a Roth IRA offers certain benefits for college savings, it's primarily a retirement savings vehicle. 

Best way to save for college

Savings Bonds from the U.S. Treasury

Savings bonds from the U.S. Treasury are often considered a safe and secure investment choice. These bonds are essentially a loan to the U.S. government, and in return, the government pays you interest.

The U.S. Treasury currently offers two types of savings bonds: Series E.E. and Series I bonds. Series E.E. bonds are guaranteed to at least double in value over the term of the bond, usually 20 years, while Series I bonds are designed to provide a return that keeps pace with inflation.

Savings Bonds Pros:

  • Interest earned on U.S. savings bonds is exempt from state and local taxes.
  • If used for qualified education expenses, the interest may also be exempt from federal tax, subject to certain income limits and other criteria.

Savings Bonds Cons:

  • Compared to other investments, savings bonds have relatively low-interest rates, which means they might not keep up with the rising cost of college tuition.
  • The tax benefits are subject to income restrictions, and the bonds must be held in the parent's name, not the child's.

Permanent Life Insurance Policy

Permanent life insurance, which includes whole life and universal life insurance, is not typically viewed as a college savings vehicle. However, these policies do build cash value over time that can potentially be used for education expenses.

A permanent life insurance policy provides lifelong coverage with the added benefit of accumulating cash value over time. The policyholder can borrow against the cash value or surrender the policy for the cash. This differs from term life insurance, which covers a set period.

Permanent Life Insurance Pros:

  • Life insurance proceeds are generally not subject to income tax. If structured properly, neither are loans taken against the policy’s cash value.
  • Unlike a 529 plan or Coverdell ESA, funds from a life insurance policy can be used for anything, not just education expenses.

Permanent Life Insurance Cons:

  • The primary purpose of life insurance is to provide a death benefit, and policies can be expensive. This cost might outweigh the potential benefits of the policy’s cash value.
  • Loans against your policy decrease the death benefit and could have tax implications if handled improperly.

By taking the time to understand these different options, you're well on your way to making a well-informed decision about the best ways to save for your child's education.

Why You Shouldn't Spend Your Retirement on College Savings

It's understandable to want to provide your children with the best possible opportunities, including paying for their college education. But compromising your retirement savings to foot college bills may not be wise.

Here's why: Retirement is a stage of life where income generation is often significantly lower or non-existent. Unlike college, there aren't scholarships, grants, or loans for retirement. While it's admirable to want to cover your child's education costs, you must also ensure that you're financially secure in your later years.

Moreover, consider the potential long-term impact on your child. You might be able to pay for their college now by dipping into your retirement, but what happens if you run out of funds in your old age? It might then fall to your children to support you financially, a burden you may not wish to place upon them.

So, while saving for your child's college is important, always remember that your retirement needs are equally important. Balance is key – aim to contribute to both your retirement and your child's education. In this way, you're investing in a secure future for you and your child.

Save for retirement and your child education


Saving for your child's college fund doesn't need to feel overwhelming. It's all about starting early, even if it's a small amount, and allowing the power of compounding interest to work in your favor. Exploring tax-advantaged options such as 529 plans, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, Roth IRAs, Savings Bonds from the U.S. Treasury, and Permanent Life Insurance Policies can provide additional benefits. It's also essential to balance saving for your child's education and your retirement. Remember, there's no 'one-size-fits-all' strategy—it's about finding the best method for you and your family's financial circumstances.

Written by Matthew Levy

Matthew is a freelance financial copywriter with 14+ years in financial services. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics with business and finance options and is a CFA Charterholder. He is from Vancouver, Canada, but writes from all over the world.