Most parents dream of paying to send their children to college, but these days, that’s no small feat. The average cost of a public, four-year university is $24,300 a year.

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If your child attends a private, four-year university, these costs rise to $50,300 a year. And college costs continue to rise every year, so the odds are it will be even more expensive by the time your children reach college age.

So just like you wouldn’t put off planning for retirement, you shouldn’t put off planning how you’ll pay for college either. Fortunately, with a little planning and a whole lot of savings, it’s entirely possible to fund your child’s education expenses.

4 Steps to Start Saving for Your Child’s College

If you haven’t yet started saving for college, this process can feel very overwhelming. It’s hard to imagine how you’ll save such a large sum of money in a relatively short period of time.

And if your children are in high school, you’re probably feeling the pinch even more. Here are four easy steps to help you get started.

Step 1: Start as soon as possible

If your children are very young, you may feel like it’s too early to start saving for college. But when it comes to any type of savings plan, time is going to be your best friend. The more you save now, the less you’ll have to save later on.

So you should start saving for college as soon as possible. Better to start early than to have your children hit high school and realize you never got around to saving for their college education.

Figure out how much money you can reasonably set aside for the college fund every month. Even if it’s only $100, every little bit helps.

Step 2: Come up with a plan

Now you need to sit down and take a good, hard look at the numbers. How much are you going to need to cover the cost of tuition, books, on-campus living, and more?

More than likely, this number is going to be much higher than you imagined, but don’t let that keep you from taking action. There are ways to make up the difference if you’re short on funds, but you should at least know how much savings you’re aiming for.

Step 3: Pick the right savings plan

The best way to save for college is by picking the right investment plan. A good investment strategy allows you to take advantage of compound interest and maximize your returns.

And be sure to take advantage of any tax-deferred options at your disposal. We’ll look at four college investment plans you can consider in a later section.

Step 4: Begin saving consistently

And finally, you need to start saving consistently. Even just investing a small amount of money every month will help you grow your child’s college savings account more quickly. If you take action on these four steps, then you should be able to finance a good chunk of your child’s tuition bill.

The Top 4 College Savings Options

Many parents would like to start saving for college but are unsure of where they should begin. Here are four different college savings options you can consider.

1. Roth IRA

A Roth IRA is a tax-advantaged account designed for retirement savings, but it can also be used to save for college. Your investment will grow tax-free, and if you’re at least 59½, you can withdraw the money tax-free as well.

But if you’re under the age of 59½, you can make a penalty-free and tax-free withdrawal for up to $10,000, as long as the money is being used for higher education. The only disadvantage of choosing a Roth IRA is that your yearly income must be below a certain limit for you to be eligible.

2. Taxable Investment Account

A taxable investment account is a brokerage account that’s funded with after-tax money. Your earnings will be taxed, but the money can be used for any purpose.

Of all the college savings plans on this list, a taxable investment account is going to be your most flexible option. And there are no income limits or caps on how much you can save every year.

3. 529 College Savings Plan

A 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged plan offered by the state. Every state offers its own 529 plan, and you can sign up for whatever plan you choose.

The benefit of 529 plans is that your savings will grow tax-free. You can also make tax-free withdrawals, as long as the money is used for educational purposes. And many states offer a tax deduction for contributions.

4. Pre-Paid Tuition Plans

A pre-paid tuition plan is similar to a 529 plan, except it allows you to “lock-in” tuition amounts at their current rates. Essentially, the state guarantees that the funds will rise at the rate of college tuition inflation. College costs continue to increase every year, so this may be a good option for you.

The only downside is that there are more restrictions put on pre-paid tuition plans. Your child must attend either an in-state public college or choose from a select list of private colleges. And the funds can’t be used to pay for room and board.

How to Save Money on College

If your child is planning to attend college in the next year or two, you may feel like you’re running out of time to save for school. If that’s the case, your best plan is to find ways to save money so you can maximize the savings you do have. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • Consider community college for two years: Having your child attend community college for two years can cut down on the amount of money you spend on tuition. Just make sure the four-year college they are planning to transfer to will accept all of their credits.
  • Apply for scholarships and grants: There is no better way to cut down on the price of college than with grants and scholarships. If your child qualifies for grants and scholarships, that’s free money they won’t have to pay back after graduation. You can check out scholarship boards like Unigo and GoGrad to find possible scholarship opportunities.
  • Fill out the FAFSA: Everyone who attends college should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). When you fill out the FAFSA, your child becomes eligible for financial aid and federal loans. Federal student loans come with lower interest rates and more favorable repayment terms than private loans.
  • Graduate in less than four years: If your child is able and motivated to graduate in less than four years, this can save you a lot of money in tuition. Your child can do this by attending summer classes, choosing an accelerated program, and testing out of introductory college classes.

Summary

College is expensive, and few parents look forward to paying these hefty tuition bills. But with a little planning, you can make sure you’re prepared to take on the cost of college. And a college degree will set your child up for a lifetime of success, so it is well worth the time and effort spent.