The first step is to decide which avenue to pursue: do you want the student to come out debt free or do you want the student to have some “skin in the game”? If students know they are responsible for a portion, or all of the student loan repayment, they often take college more seriously. Once you know how much the student will be responsible for through student loans, simply take the total cost of a course in miracles bookstore you are targeting minus the student loan portion, and the amount you will cover from free cash flow each year. This number will give you a rough idea how much you will need. You may want to run an inflation calculation or speak to an advisor to assist with those calculations.
529 accounts are the most tax advantaged way to save in Nebraska and Iowa. Contributions are made to the plans with a maximum of $70,000 in one year (uses 5 years of gifting at the $14,000 per year gift tax threshold), and a state tax deduction of up to $10,000 in Nebraska and $3168 in Iowa. The contributions are invested in various portfolio options offered by each state. Any earning on the accounts are tax free if used for qualified education expenses. However, if the earnings portion is not used for education, there is a 10% penalty in addition to income tax.
Coverdell ESAs are similar to 529s, with lower contribution limits, but can be used for K-12 education. Additionally, Coverdell accounts must be used by the time the beneficiary reaches 30.
For both 529s and Coverdell ESAs, the funds can be transferred to another beneficiary if it is not needed or used for the first beneficiary, which allows for the owner to control use of the funds.
US Savings Bonds are one of the more flexible options best used for lower income savers. The bonds’ proceeds may be excluded from federal and state income tax if used for higher education and income limits are met.
Lastly, custodial accounts, often referred to as UTMA/UGMA accounts, are the most flexible in terms of what the dollars are used for. Custodial account contributions are gifts to the minor that become available for the minor at an “age of majority”, which is different in each state. The earnings are subject to income tax and may cause “Kiddie Tax” rules to apply. Additionally, for student aid purposes these accounts are considered the student’s assets and the person contributing has no control over the how the assets are used.
What to do if college is next year and you haven’t saved at all? First, don’t panic! 529 accounts can still be used as a “checking account” for education expenses, allowing for a state tax deduction (limits apply) in Nebraska and Iowa. Additionally, it is important to pay for at least $4500 of qualified education expenses out of pocket or from student loans in order to utilize the American Opportunity tax credit available for the first four years of college.