Great Options to Save for Your Child’s College Education

Best Ways to Save for CollegeFor the 2015-2016 school year, college costs, including tuition, fees, and room and board, averaged approximately $20,000 per year for a public four-year university (in-state) and around $44,000 at private four-year schools, according to the College Board. In some cases, elite private schools cost approximately $70,000 a year (including room and board and other fees).

If you plan to pay for four years of college, this quickly adds up. Fortunately, there are several different ways to save for college. Here are the pros and cons of a few popular college savings options. The right one for your family depends on your situation.

 A summary of this blog is also available via podcast as Episode 17 on the Financial Symmetry website.

Roth IRA

A Roth IRA is a tax-advantaged individual retirement account. With a Roth, you put in after-tax money, and it grows tax-free. Your contributions are nondeductible, and qualified distributions after age 59½ are tax-free. Before age 59½, you can also withdraw contributions to the account tax-free. If you withdraw any earnings before age 59½, you must pay a 10% penalty, except in some special cases.

Though a Roth IRA is intended to be a retirement savings vehicle, it can be used for college savings as well, since contributions can be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free to pay for college. Compared to other college savings options, this flexibility makes it an excellent choice for many families.


  • You can save for college and retirement.
  • Contributions can be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free at any time.
  • IRA assets are not included for financial aid calculations, improving aid eligibility for your student.


529 college savings plan

These tax-advantaged plans are offered by states and are designed to help families save for future college costs. Investments grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals are tax-free if used for qualified education expenses. All states offer plans, and you can invest in any state you choose. If your only goal is to save for college, 529 plans are a great tool. They have excellent tax benefits, but lack the flexibility of some of the other options if the money is not used for college.


  • Earnings grow tax-free.
  • Withdrawals are tax-free if used for qualified education expenses.
  • Some states offer a state tax deduction for contributions.
  • You can change beneficiaries in the future if funds are not needed.


  • Earnings withdrawn for nonqualified education expenses are subject to a 10% withdrawal penalty and ordinary income taxes.
  • These assets are included in determining your family’s ability to pay for college for financial aid purposes.
  • There are limits on the amount you can contribute annually.

Note that there are also private college 529 plans that allow parents to prepay for tuition credits at certain private schools, locking in future tuition costs at today’s prices. But these are even less flexible than state-sponsored 529 plans so make sure you understand the details before committing to this type of savings vehicle.   

Taxable investment account

This is a regular brokerage account that is funded with after-tax money. Earnings in the account are taxed, but the money can be used for anything. (This could also be cash in the bank, which won’t yield much and will also be taxed.)

A taxable investment account offers the most flexibility of any option on this list, but it’s the least desirable from a tax standpoint. However, there may be ways to eliminate capital gains taxes by transferring assets to your child and using a combination of the personal exemption, standard deduction and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. But this can be complicated, and I’d recommend working with a tax or financial professional to implement such a strategy. 



  • These assets are included in determining your family’s ability to pay for college for financial aid purposes.
  • Capital gains, dividends and interest are taxed annually.

Get Help

These three vehicles tend to be the best options for college savings, and many families will employ a strategy that uses more than one. Other options, like custodial accounts or cash-value life insurance, are less attractive. A custodial account is one created in the student’s name with someone else assigned as a custodian. The funds must be spent for the benefit of the child and become the child’s once he or she reaches a certain age. Cash-value life insurance includes an investment component, which parents may be tempted to use for college. But high fees and limited investment options make this a poor choice for college funding. In both cases, these vehicles lack flexibility, and since the assets are included in financial aid calculations, they may reduce the level of aid a student receives.

Consider working with a fee-only financial planner who specializes in college planning to help you decide what makes the most sense for your family.  They will help you determine how much you can and should save for college. It’s important that you don’t let saving for college derail your other financial goals — especially your retirement plans. While your child can take out a loan for college, you can’t do that for retirement. Developing a college savings strategy as part of your long-term financial plan will help you determine how much you can save while still reaching your personal and financial goals.

A version of this article was published on NerdWallet.

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