There are also restrictions on how money in these plans can be invested. For instance, account owners can switch the investments in their plan only twice a year.
Prepaid tuition plans
A prepaid tuition plan is an alternative to a 529 savings plan that may appeal to some parents. Designed for parents who are sure that their child will attend an in-state public university, this plan allows parents to simply pay for tuition credits in advance at a predetermined price.
Prepaid 529 plans retain the same tax, financial aid and parental protections as 529 college savings plans, but without being subject to swings in the stock market.
"The major limitation to a prepaid plan is that if the child decides to go to school out of state, they'll get a return on their money, but they won't get the full value of the plan," says Parkin. "For example, if someone bought one year of tuition at a Kentucky state school for $12,000 and now tuition is up to $20,000, they would get a full year of college. If they decide to go to school in, say, Ohio, they would get a return -- probably $13,000 or $14,000 -- but they wouldn't get the full $20,000."
Like 529 college savings plans, prepaid plan holders can change beneficiaries at any time, but must pay a 10 percent penalty plus income tax on funds used for anything other than college tuition.
"You can have the prepaid plan to pay for tuition and a 529 college savings to pay for other expenses," says Parkin.
UGMA and UTMA accounts
If the child doesn't plan to attend college and therefore isn't at risk of losing financial aid, UGMA and UTMA custodial accounts offer standard tax breaks for children under 18.
UGMA stands for the Uniform Gift to Minors Act. UTMA stands for Uniform Transfer to Minors Act.
In these accounts, the first $1,000 in gains is tax-free, the second $1,000 is taxed at the child's income tax rate and the remainder is taxed at the parent's income tax rate, according to the IRS. Plus, there are no restrictions on how the funds may be used as long as they directly benefit the child.
The downside of UGMA and UTMA accounts is that parents have less control over how the child eventually spends the money, says Michael Kay, a certified financial planner and president of Financial Life Focus, a financial planning firm in Livingston, New Jersey.
"If money is in a UTMA or a UGMA account, it becomes (the beneficiary's) at the age of majority, which is 18 to 21, depending on the state," he says. "There's no legal way to prevent the child from using money that was intended for college or a house to go to Europe."
RATE SEARCH: Want to save for your children's education? Shop Bankrate for the best rates on high-yield CDs.
Finally, parents can give a kid a financial head start by opening a Roth IRA in the child's name once he or she begins earning income.
While offspring over the age of 18 retain control of the account, restrictions on Roth IRA withdrawals keep investors from taking earnings out penalty-free until the age of 59 1/2.
However, there are exceptions to this rule that allow early withdrawals due to certain circumstances (hardships such as a disability) or for specific types of spending (such as purchasing a first home or for qualified education expenses).
A trust in the child's name is another option for parents. However, these plans come with legal and administrative fees parents won't face with a Roth IRA.
Meanwhile, some parents may believe that it makes more sense not to save at all for their child's future. The idea is that having no college savings also means having no assets to assess.
However, that strategy may not work because even if parents don't save anything, they're still going to have an expected contribution once they fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form.
Another common error is for parents to save for their children's future before addressing their own long-term financial circumstances.
After all, most parents don't expect their children to finance their retirement.