Saving for college can be made more simple but it will likely never be easy. Parents and grandparents of college-bound children have the best intentions, but it’s hard to avoid pitfalls. Here are the biggest mistakes I continue to see:
Mistake #1: funding college ahead of retirement.
This one cheeses me the worst: parents who elect not save for their own financial independence and instead allocate scarce resources for their children’s education. Your first obligation is to yourself and your own future. Your kids will figure it out even if you can’t write a blank check for tuition. Worst case: they borrow the money. No one will lend you money to retire. If you are not already maxing out your 401k plan at work, stop reading this article here: you’re not ready to be saving money for your kids’ college education.
Mistake #2: ignoring 529 plans because they aren’t perfect.
They are good, and in some cases they are damn good. Let’s refresh on the basics: you get a state tax deduction for money contributed, the money grows tax-deferred, and if used to pay higher education expenses the growth on the money is tax-free. It’s like an IRA plan for college expenses. There are no income limits as to who can contribute, and the funds can be spent almost anywhere. The rules vary tremendously by state, so if you are thinking about these plans you need to learn the rules for your particular state. State 529 plans are so efficient, there is almost no reason to look anywhere else. This leads me to…..
Mistake #3: trying to make something into an investment plan that isn’t.
Gerber Life runs these ads that make me want to take a shotgun to my television every time they come on, trotting out life insurance (and a really, really bad life insurance policy at that) as a savings vehicle for college. I beg of you not to fall for this. There are many good reasons to buy life insurance and saving for college is not one of them.
Mistake #4: structuring assets to attempt to game the financial aid system.
This is a favorite tool of annuity salesmen; if you sink assets into an annuity it does not have to be reported on the FAFSA. It will come out in other areas on the financial aid forms used by many colleges and universities. Same goes for cash value inside a life insurance policy (see #3, above). These are all really, really expensive ways to try to game the system that likely will not work.
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