Dear Liz: I have twin boys and have been looking for a college fund to set up for them. Most bank saving accounts don’t pay much interest. The only thing I have found that is halfway decent is a certificate of deposit. My grandmother set up a trust for me, but I don’t know whether that’s a good idea these days. Do you have any ideas that would help?
Answer: You’re actually asking two questions. The first is what vehicle to use for college savings, and the second is how to get a decent return on your money.
Let’s take the latter question first. Bank savings accounts or certificates of deposit are fine if your kids are headed off to college in a year or two, but these low-risk investments won’t give you much growth on your money. In fact, you’ll almost certainly lose buying power over time when you consider inflation. If your money is in a taxable account, you’ll lose that much more.
Many parents opt to take more risk in order to accumulate more funds. If college is 10 years or more in the future, investing at least some of the money in stocks or stock funds makes sense.
The vehicle you use is also important. If you expect to get financial aid, you’d be better off avoiding custodial accounts such as Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) or Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) accounts. These were popular accounts years ago when tax rates were higher, but they count heavily against you in financial aid formulas.
Many families find 529 college savings plans to be the best choice. These state-run accounts allow your contributions to grow tax-free for college and are treated favorably in financial aid calculations. These plans typically offer a choice of investment options, including age-weighted options that start out more heavily invested in stocks but that ratchet back exposure to risk as college draws closer. For more information, visit SavingForCollege.com.