Check your college savings options
It’s financially smart to periodically check your college savings strategies and reconsider how much money to put away for school, says Luke Carey, a Certified Financial Planner with Lighthouse Financial Advisors in Red Bank, N.J.
As you conduct your college savings checkup, here are four strategies experts say you should use.
Evaluate your 529 fund’s ranking
If you’re going to invest in a 529 college savings plan, it’s important to find one that has low fees and offers good investment choices.
“The less money you have to invest, the more fees will take up a bigger percentage of your investment, and that will leave you with less money saved for college,” says Carey.
Investors can research inexpensive 529 plans by reading fund comparisons on the Internet or by reviewing fund rankings on research websites such as Morningstar. People can use these resources to determine how a particular college savings plan is performing compared to other plans, he says.
If your money is in a less-than-desirable fund, Carey says it’s likely in your best interest to move it. “You can switch an account once every 12 months, and you can make investment changes once a year,” he says.
Review your personal budget
In evaluating your personal spending, try to find ways to cut out unnecessary expenses so you can put that extra money toward saving for college, says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of operations for the Arizona office of Freedom Debt Relief, a financial services organization with headquarters in San Mateo, Calif.
He advises consumers to start by looking for ways to reduce their insurance, cable and telephone costs. “If you can shop around and find a better price for the same level of service, you can take the extra cash and put it toward savings,” he says.
Another option is to take advantage of a new Social Security payroll tax cut of 2 percent for employees in 2011, says Carey. With this tax reduction, employees who make $50,000 in wages can save about $1,000 a year in Social Security taxes, while six-figure earners would see their tax bill reduced by about $2,000 (the maximum amount of earnings subject to the tax is $106,800).
“If you’re able to take that amount and save it, it can be like found money to put away for college,” says Carey.
Search for scholarships
Scholarships and grants are generally considered to be the best types of financial aid possible because they don’t have to be paid back, Carey says. But many awards are made on a first-come, first-served basis, so you should apply as soon as possible, he says.
Gallegos says if you have a high school senior who will need the help of grants and loans to pay for college, be sure to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
People often think of the FAFSA in terms of student loans, but it’s also used by organizations that award grants that don’t have to be repaid, he says. “The quicker you submit the FAFSA, the higher the probability your student will receive a grant or scholarship at their preferred schools,” Gallegos says.
Talk to a financial adviser
Staying on top of your finances can seem overwhelming at times, especially if you have a complicated financial picture, Gallegos says.
Some parents may wonder how different college savings accounts affect their ability to qualify for certain forms of financial aid. Some grandparents may wonder if a 529 plan is a good estate-planning vehicle.
While research sites are helpful for general information, if you have a financial question you can’t answer on your own, discuss it with a tax consultant or money professional, Gallegos says.
“I believe people should consider talking to a financial adviser at least once,” he says. There will likely be a cost involved, but financial professionals often have the tools to help clients figure out how to save money in a way that fits their personal situation, he says.