Paying for college requires planning, strategy

Arlene and Joan are well-educated women. So they’re convinced that their son Sam, now 12, will go to college. “But how do we pay for it?” they wanted to know.

“You have several approaches,” I said. “But first, let’s talk about Sam’s role in all this.”

Many parents see the wisdom of their children having some “skin in the game.” A free ride can cause a student to lose sight of an education’s value and the need to actually buckle down and study. Student loans? Sure. But they can cripple a graduate with heavy debt for years or even decades.

“How about our retirement savings?” Joan asked. My response: Hold on. You can borrow for an education — or a home — but you can’t borrow for your retirement years.

“So that’s it?” Arlene asked.

“Let’s back up,” I advised. “Yes” to student loans, but in workable amounts. You can get a good idea of what payments will be when your student graduates, then exercise some cost control — like choosing a state school over a private one. And “yes” to a part-time job for your student. Involving your student is smart. But there’s more to consider.

Saving specifically for college often means downsizing today’s pleasures — vacations, eating out, shopping. But it will ease the burden tomorrow.

And where should money set aside for college go? A 529 higher education savings plan is a tax-advantaged savings account offered by states. They partner with investment management companies to offer mutual funds. A 529 plan generally lets you select either a customized portfolio or an age-based portfolio that changes its asset allocation based on the age of your child. The closer your child gets to college, the more conservative the assets mix. You keep more of your earnings. California ScholarShare is managed by TIAA-CREF. But you can open a 529 plan in any state.

Where to start? Check rating services like Morningstar to evaluate cost, performance and other factors — or There’s a lot to know about 529s, including tax treatment and transferring from one state to another, so do your research and speak with your financial adviser.

Roth IRAs often are my top choice for savings accounts. Since contributions are made on an after-tax basis, distributions are not taxed. If you’ve contributed money to your Roth rather than converted an older retirement account to a Roth, you can withdraw your original principal anytime for any purpose — education being one. Of course, Roth accounts were meant to provide tax-free income in retirement. As I mentioned, I don’t advise using retirement assets for any other purpose. But in a pinch, you can find some extra college money there.

A strategy I recommend is buying individual municipal bonds and putting them in your — not your child’s — name. The income they provide is tax-free. Also, they offer maximum flexibility since you have no legal or tax obligation to spend these funds on any particular purpose. In short, there’s no penalty for using them to pay college bills. You can buy bonds that will mature at the same time your tuition and room and board payments are due. And as I told Arlene and Joan, should Sam not — perish the thought — attend college, the money is still all theirs.

Two tips: If you’re looking for financial aid, start when your child enters high school. In this regard, transfer as many of the assets held in your child’s name to your own name. Financial aid formulas will take 20 percent  of a student’s assets into account but only 5.64 percent of a parent’s assets. The more assets, the less aid a student generally will receive. Also, you’ll find a great source for covering higher education expenses at


• Start saving early by establishing educational savings accounts separate from your other savings for a home and especially for your retirement.

• Involve your child in the discussion of college expenses, including loans and work.

• Maximize financial aid possibilities by placing assets in your name, not in the student’s.

It generally takes about 18 years for a child to grow, mature and be ready to enter college. All or even some of those years give you good opportunity to save for college and make realistic plans about the kind of school your student can attend.

In my next column, we’ll talk about retirement savings.


Ira Fateman

Ira Fateman is a certified financial planner at SAS Financial Advisors in San Francisco. He can be reached at (415) 277-5955 or [email protected].