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 school, these plans allow parents to simply purchase tuition credits in advance at today's prices.
Prepaid 529 plans retain the same tax, financial aid and parental protections as 529 college savings plans, but without being subject to ups and downs of 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 accountsIf the child doesn't plan to attend college and therefore isn't at risk of losing financial aid, UGMA and UTMA custodial accounts offer decent tax breaks for children under the age of 18.
In these accounts, the first $950 in gains is tax-free, the second $950 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 so long as it directly benefits 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 Focus, a financial planning firm in Livingston, N.J.
"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."
Roth IRAFinally, parents can give their kids a financial head start by opening a Roth IRA in the child's name once the child starts earning income, Havens says.
"If the child has an earned income, a Roth IRA is a great way to start saving a nest egg for a first house or for their retirement since the assets grow tax-free," he says.
While children over the age of 18 retain control of the account, restrictions on Roth IRA withdrawals prevent investors from taking earnings out penalty-free until the age of 59½.
However, there are exceptions to this rule that allow early withdrawals due to certain circumstances (hardships such as a disability) or for certain 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 concerned about how their kid will blow the dough. However, these plans come with legal and administrative fees parents won't encounter with a Roth IRA.
Common mistakesMeanwhile, 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, Helgeson says that strategy won't work.
"When the federal government decides what a family's expected contribution is, most of that number is based on the parent's income," he says. "Even if parents don't save anything, they're still going to have an expected contribution."
Another common mistake is for parents to save for their children's future before addressing their own long-term financial circumstances, Haven says.
"The worst thing parents can do is not set themselves up and become a burden for their kids later," Haven says. "It's not about sacrificing one goal for another. It's about looking at all of their goals at once and deciding the best way to tackle them as a whole."