- REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
Parents are saving for college at record levels – but they’re still coming up short.
According to Fidelity’s recently released10-Year College Progress Report, 72% of parents reported saving for college this year – a record high – compared to 58% in 2007.
But despite this increase, the study found that just 29% of parents are on track to reach their savings goals by the time their kid packs up for freshman year, making it more important than ever for parents to start saving early.
Fidelity asked parents with children in 10th grade or older what they wished they had done 10 years earlier to boost their college savings efforts, and they shared several strategies they wished they’d started from day one.
Here are five easy ways every new (or not so new) parent can start saving right away:
1. Open a 529 college savings account
Many parents don’t even know about 529 savings plans, which are state-sponsored tax-advantaged investment accounts that anyone can open and contribute to. These plans can be used to cover everything from tuition to books, and they can also be transferred among family members. That means if one child chooses a cheaper school, parents can shift any leftover funds toward a sibling’s education.
Each state runs one or more 529 plans themselves, giving parents dozens of options to choose from. You can check out the 10 lowest-fee accounts available, but be sure to consider the tax deductions, or lack thereof, each would offer.
“If you don’t use your own state’s plan, and you live in a state with income taxes, you may miss out on a tax deduction,” Michael Egan, CFP and founding partner of financial planning firm Egan, Berger & Weiner, warned Business Insider.
2. Treat college savings like a bill
If you wait until the end of the month to put whatever’s left toward college savings, you might not end up with much. Instead, put a certain amount away at the beginning of the month – as you would for a bill – and then forget about it. Setting money aside before you have the chance to spend it makes saving painless.
Even better, automate it to go into a tax-advantaged account (like a 529 plan) each month, mirroring self-made millionaire David Bach’s concept of paying yourself first. “You’d be amazed how effortlessly you can learn to live on a little less,” he writes in his book “The Automatic Millionaire.”
3. Increase savings by 1% or more annually
In keeping with the concept of paying yourself first, learning to live off less gradually blunts the challenge of saving a giant sum. Increasing college savings by just 1% – and investing it into an account that compounds over time – can result in thousands extra per year.
For a family that puts away $500 per month, thus saving $6,000 per year, a 1% annual increase could result in more than $20,000 in extra savings over 20 years, assuming a 6% annual rate of return, according to the New York Times’ 1% More Savings Calculator.
4. Prioritize college savings over impulse purchases
Ultimately, saving in any capacity comes down to our day-to-day choices. In theory, any unnecessary purchase, such as a daily coffee, can be rerouted toward college savings.
Cut out impulse buys, such as a spontaneous vacations or dinners out when you’re feeling too lazy to cook, and move those extra charges into a college savings account. You can also consider making simple lifestyle changes to save more or nabbing a few savings tips from millennials.
5. Open a cash-back credit card and dedicate all the rewards to a college savings account
When budgets get tight, it can be difficult to find even an extra $50 to put toward college savings. But credit cards with cash back rewards basically pay you to shop. With 1% cash back, every $1,000 spent on groceries, gas, and household expenses can potentially put $10 straight into a college account. That’s even more for cards with 2%, 3%, and even up to 6% cash back.
Don’t know where to start? Check out Business Insider’s list of the best credit cards to fit any lifestyle.