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I couldn’t afford a college degree. Here’s what I did so my sons didn’t have the same problem

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After making four attempts at college, failing to graduate and racking up thousands of dollars in student debt, I was introduced to an investment tool that will help my children avoid following my tracks.

The first time I tried to go to college was right after high school. The second time was right after the birth of my second child. The third time was after my marriage and the last time just after my divorce. The last time I tried to go back to college I realized how much it was costing me now that I was older with more financial responsibilities and little to no savings or options for pay for my studies other than getting into more debt.

I also realized that every time I had to drop out of college, it was 100% cost related. Getting a degree was entirely out of my budget.

After my divorce, I had to deplete all the savings accounts I had to get my finances back on track. I was one emergency away from having my finances completely derailed, and I couldn’t afford to live day to day, let alone save money for school.

My hopes of going back to school have been dashed because of the financial impact of my divorce – and I don’t want my sons to feel that way.

Use 529 plans as a way to pay for college

My income hadn’t increased much since the divorce and I needed to find a way to use a small amount of money to provide for my sons’ educational needs without depriving us of our daily financial needs.

It was then that I learned about investing in small increments and the power of compound interest.

My little sister, who has always been far more financially savvy than me, texted me asking if I had a 529 college savings plan for my kids. I had no idea what she was talking about, and I was immediately uncomfortable about adding new expenses to my budget, even for a good ending.

A 529 plan is a tax-efficient investment account. While your money is in the account, no tax will be due on the income from your investments, and if you choose to withdraw money for eligible educational expenses, the withdrawals will be tax-free. Parents can earn more on their invested money than they would if it was in a regular savings account.

The sooner you start investing for big expenses like college, the better. This reduces the likelihood that you will need student loans.

You don’t need much to get started

When you invest on behalf of your children, you get two great benefits: compound interest and time. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest each month, but with time and compound interest on my side, what little I could save paid off. Most states have a minimum contribution of $25 or less to start a college savings plan. (See here for a full list of 529 plan options in each state.)

At the beginning of my plan, I lived in Missouri. With no minimum required, I started investing for my sons with just $20 a month before growing to $250 a month a year later. Anyone who wants to save money for their child’s educational needs can support them using a 529 plan. As a single parent, I have taken every opportunity to fund my children’s education by asking my family and my friends to make a donation or send them “gifts” for their college studies. Most 529 plans have a gift service that allows you to request financial support, and this is the method I’ve often used to replace birthday and Christmas gifts from family and friends.

Flexible use of funds

Think of a 529 plan like a 401(k) or Roth IRA, except it’s for educational purposes instead of retirement. Saving for my children’s education was a priority because of the many obstacles I encountered while trying to further my education, which would have helped me advance in my career.

When you choose a 529 plan, you are not limited to using investments for tuition only. After a recent tax plan change, parents were given more flexibility and control over how the 529 plan could be used. We can now use up to $10,000 from our 529 accounts for K-12 tuition. In 2021 my kids and I moved to a new town and we found an amazing private school in our area with total monthly tuition of $2,223. These tuition fees would have initially increased my monthly expenses significantly. Yet, because I had started the 529 plans years ago, I used some of the funds to pay over 50% of their tuition, bringing my monthly payment down to less than $1,000 per month.

If you don’t use it, you don’t lose it

I want my two children to pursue higher education, but if one of them decides to take another path, all will not be lost. The beneficiary of a 529 plan can be changed at any time as long as the new beneficiary is a family member of the previous beneficiary. It has been reported that 43% of student mothers they are expected to drop out. If I try to go back to college for the 5th time, I can also use this 529 plan to pay for that.

Conclusion

I place a lot of importance on education in my household. While there are many ways to prepare your children for the future, I use 529 Plans to ensure that my children will have no problem accessing the educational resources and tools they need. Even if they decide not to attend college, the 10% tax penalty for withdrawing the funds for other purposes seems small compared to what it would cost if we needed the funds and didn’t planes didn’t.