The Ultimate Guide to Ways to Get College Paid For

The Ultimate Guide to Ways to Get College Paid For

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Have you ever gone to bed worrying about college money? Paralyzed, gripped by the all-consuming question: “How will I pay for this?” 

I can help you. 

What you might not realize is that the ways to get college paid for doesn’t just involve one approach. 

Often, paying for college is like a puzzle. Or a pizza.

You pay for college using lots of different sources — need-based aid, merit-based aid, outside scholarships, etc.

Well. Let’s not list it all out here. Let’s dive in and go over the puzzle pieces, one by one.

1. File the FAFSA.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) gives you major access to scholarships and aid. You can file the FAFSA starting on October 1 of your child’s senior year. The first thing you need to do is get an FSA ID for both you and your student. 

You can choose any of these methods to file a FAFSA form:

  • Apply online.
  • Fill out the form in the myStudentAid mobile app, available on the App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android).
  • Complete a 2021–22 FAFSA PDF.
  • Get a print-out of the FAFSA PDF by calling us at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913). You can mail it in instead.

The FAFSA qualifies you for not only federal student aid, the FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for certain state and college and university financial aid. Your FAFSA information is shared with the colleges and/or career schools you list on the FAFSA.

2. File the CSS Profile.

What’s the CSS Profile? 

It’s one of the best ways you can get aid for college. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is a private independent survey you fill out through a nonprofit organization, the College Board. Nearly 400 universities rely on the CSS Profile to award your kid scholarships and other non-federal financial aid.

What does your child get from filing the CSS Profile? The application could help your child secure institutional scholarships as well as grants or student loans from the federal government.

What colleges accept the CSS Profile? 

Great question. Check out the list of participating colleges and universities. The list includes colleges and universities that use CSS Profile as part of their financial aid processes for some or all of their financial aid applicants. Check schools’ websites or contact the institution’s financial aid office for more information.

Unlike the FAFSA, which is free, It costs $25 for the application and one report to a school. You’ll pay $16 for each additional report.

The CSS Profile gathers information about your family’s annual income as well as medical expenses and anything else that could affect your ability to pay for college — it takes a deeper dive into families’ finances than the FAFSA. 

Note: Divorced parents must complete the CSS profile separately.

3. Explore your options for merit aid.

You’ll run into a lot of myths about aid. Let’s take a machete to these harmful myths:

  1. My kid has to be a genius to get money from a college or university.
  2. Students must be incredible athletes to receive money. 
  3. It takes an exhaustive search of scholarships don’t have to look any further than the college or university your child is looking into.

Did you know that there’s unlimited merit aid from schools around the country? Merit-based aid is aid not based on financial need. Instead, it’s based on items like grade point average, test scores and specific talents.

Let’s look at one school for an example. I’m going to adopt my cousin’s alma mater, St. Olaf, for a second, and show you the merit-based scholarships available there:

  • The Buntrock Scholarship (a renewable award of $25,000 per year) recognizes students with outstanding academic accomplishment and exemplary achievement across many facets of the high school experience.
  • The Presidential Scholarship (a renewable award of $23,000 per year) recognizes salutary academic achievement.
  • The Dean’s Scholarship (a renewable award of $21,000 per year) recognizes a strong and sustained academic achievement.
  • The Faculty Scholarship (a renewable award of $19,000 per year) recognizes a balanced record of consistent academic achievement.
  • The St. Olaf Scholarship (a renewable award of $17,000 per year) recognizes academic achievement.

What would your child have to do to get these scholarships? Fill out the Common Application and include test scores, high school transcripts and letters of recommendation. 


As you can imagine, the highest scholarship amounts get offered to top students, but the lower-tier GPA and scores still get merit scholarships. As you can see, the “lower” tier totals $17,000 per year for four years. 

That’s still a whopping $68,000 over four years for the lower-tier scholarships. 

My point? Find out what your child can get for merit-based aid. Merit-based aid is also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid. 

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4. Apply for outside scholarships.

Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up. 

What can you do besides ask the guidance counselor at your child’s school for insight?

  1. Ask area high schools for graduation programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships, Google them and ta-dah! Your kid’s got an abundance of choices.
  2. Contact various civic organizations. Is your next-door neighbor a Kiwanis member? Your co-worker’s husband on the zoo board? 
  3. Talk to the company you work for. What types of scholarships does your company offer? Your partner’s? Your sister’s? 
  4. Scour emails from the guidance office. Gone are the days when a printed-out list of scholarships came from the guidance office. Unfortunately, it’s much more fleeting than that. Your child could see it on an email — then, blip — it’s gone. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible.
  5. Check social media. Social media is a great place to search for scholarships. You might join any number of Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. You can do a simple search and find scholarship groups. 
  6. Look at scholarship search engines. (I know, groan. When I was an admission counselor and offered this idea to parents, they always groaned, “There’s so many, they’re all competitive, they’re all national scholarships open to thousands of kids.”) 

Don’t hastily dismiss! I suggest Googling “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage! And if your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement. 

Also, encourage your child to continue to apply for outside scholarships throughout college. You can find so many scholarships even while your student’s knee-deep in scholarships. 

Check out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It details absolutely everything you need to know about how to track down scholarships — and win them. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System totally impresses me because she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process and get rid of waste completely. She’s the bomb!

5. Ask department heads about scholarships. 

Yes! Don’t shy away from asking academic departments at schools about scholarships. Here’s how this can work:

“Dr. Fletcher, you’ve been a biology professor here at X College since 1975. You’ve got to know about some excellent scholarships in your department.” 

“Why, as a matter of fact, we have three options for incoming freshmen.”

“One that would apply to my child’s deepening interest in European water voles?”

“Yes! How marvelous is this? My graduate research dabbled in voles.”

“What can we do to apply?”

“Here’s what you need to do…”

So, how can you do this if you’re not able to meet with professors in person? 

Email is splendid. Communicate with these people! Build relationships! Do your best to communicate with these influential individuals ahead of time so you start to build relationships. 

6. Pay for it on your own. 

Remember how I mentioned that paying for college is a giant jigsaw puzzle? It’s also a subtraction problem.

Take the total cost and subtract small bits at a time to get your out-of-pocket cost at the end. It could look like this. (Note: these numbers are completely made up and geared more toward private college costs): 

Total cost: $60,000

Merit-based Scholarships: $20,000

Grants: $2,000

Work-study: $2,000

Federal subsidized loan: $3,500

Federal unsubsidized loan: $2,000 

Total out-of-pocket cost: $30,500

Outside scholarships: $10,000

New out-of-pocket cost: $20,500

See how we subtracted, subtracted, subtracted from that total cost to arrive at an out-of-pocket cost?

Check out the next part to see how you can further take that $20,500 and break it down.

7. Use a tuition payment plan.

Many people underestimate a tuition payment plan — or don’t know about it in the first place. You pay for college using your own money, but break it up into monthly payments. 

Let’s take that $20,500 from above and break it into a 10-month payment plan. 

Breaking it into a 10-month payment plan means you’ll pay $2,050 per month. 

Check out the beauty of the next section!

8. Get creative.

Next, how can you get creative to pay for that $2,050 per month? Can you ask other people to pitch in — both sets of grandparents, your child (think work-study, summer earnings) and maybe an aunt or uncle want to help.

See, what usually happens is most people fixate on the $20,050 and can’t get beyond it. (Trust me, I saw it happen all the time in the admission office.)

Or, figure out what one person will pay you to do for $10. Then, do that 10 more times.

Am I advocating for a side hustle? Maybe! But this really could be an idea for more than a side hustle. It could be your full-time job, if that’s your passion. Save for college by making more money (it’s how I save for my own kids’ 529 plans). Ask yourself this question: What would someone pay you $10 to do?

What do you do better than everyone else? Cook fried chicken? Babysit? Walk chihuahuas? Write goofy ad copy? 

Do that one thing for that person, then do it 10 more times. Then do it again 10 more times. Maybe you’ll need to get help from others to help you! To be honest, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it generates recurring income.

In general, it’s a simple way to think about how you could leverage your passions and talents to save for college. Then stuff the money you make into an ESA, 529 or custodial account. 

Instead, take the break-it-down approach! 

9. Have your child take out loans. 

Okay, this may not be what you had in mind when you Googled “ways to get college paid for”… but you know what? It’s still a way to pay for college. 

Loans have their place, and while you probably don’t want your child to take out loans for the full cost of his entire four (or more!) years of college, you can still strategize to figure out how loans fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the full financial aid picture.

In other words, if your child must take out loans, do it as conservatively as possible, in this order: 

  1. Take out federal loans. 
  2. Round out as much as you can with your own money. 
  3. Take out private loans as necessary.

10. Use life insurance.

This is a slightly more morbid way to handle paying for college because you and your spouse must die in order to get it. I know. I hesitated to stick this in here but today is the second anniversary of my father-in-law’s death and I decided to mention it. 

If his kids had been in college when he died, my mother-in-law could have relied on his life insurance to pay for college.  

Read about how I got brave and bought life insurance for college after my mom got pancreatic cancer.  

I sincerely believed that during COVID-19, I’d avoid the crowds and opt for a no-exam life insurance policy. You can get a quote from Bestow and get coverage from $50,000 to $1,000,000. Choose from 10- and 20-year terms built to suit your needs.

Get a Quote!

11. Use your Roth IRA. 

The busy-as-a-squirrel retirement saver in me squeaks just a little bit when I suggest this option. It kind of feels like trying to say something while having my finger smashed in a drawer. 


Because I really, really believe you must take care of your own retirement first before you worry about paying for college. 

However, there’s no denying it: You can use your Roth IRA for both retirement and college tuition. You won’t pay withdrawal penalties with IRAs, including Roth IRAs, if the funds are used for qualified educational expenses — tuition, fees, books and room and board.

For most folks who are sending their kids off to college, only the contribution portions of their Roth IRA balances can be withdrawn tax-free. (Any earnings in the account will be taxable for those people under 59, as well as for those over 59½ who haven’t held the Roth for at least five years.) 

But Roth IRAs enjoy a somewhat unique tax treatment. Withdrawals are treated as a “return of contribution” first and as earnings second. 

Uh… English, please.

No problem. So, what this means is that if you’ve been contributing $4,000 per year for the past five years, you can withdraw $20,000 tax-free (as long as you use the money for tuition, fees, room, board, etc.) 

What happens if your withdrawals exceed your total contributions? 

They’ll be taxable for those under age 59½.

Just remember, always take care of yourself first. You can always borrow for college but you can’t borrow for retirement. If you’re a little thin on the retirement funds, be a busy squirrel and keep contributing to your Roth IRA!

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Ways to Get College Paid for in Action

Don’t limit yourself or your child. So much goes into the process of learning how to pay for college.

Also — one more thing. Don’t stop figuring it out. Ever. This isn’t a process you quit as soon as your child is safely secured in his or her residence hall room on the first day of college. Keep looking for scholarships, keep side hustling, keep finding ways to make college work.

It’s doable — and you can do it!

How to Help: Money Management for Teens

How to Help: Money Management for Teens

Your high schooler’s busier than you. (Okay, maybe not.) But between cross country practice, homework (ugh — how hard is trig?!) and making sure those gym shorts smell Snuggle-fresh, who has time for anything else?

Even though your kiddo’s busy, it’s still important to put that math homework to good use because it could affect your child for the rest of his life. 

Check this out. 

When Caroline was 14 years old, she and her dad decided to invest $2,000 every year for five years. Call it a little experiment, if you will. Here’s what it looked like: 

Age 14: $2,000

Age 15: $2,000

Age 16: $2,000

Age 17: $2,000

Age 18: $2,000

Caroline and her dad invested no more money than that initial $10,000. 

Fast forward 51 years. How much money did Caroline have after 10 percent annual return, at age 64?


How’s that for some incredible math? (Skip solving for x.)

Why Learn About Money Now?

Investing is so important — but that’s not all your child should spend time learning. Unfortunately, high schools and colleges just don’t teach basic financial literacy. 

It changes lives when they learn this stuff early:

  • Your kids show up equipped to handle debt. The less debt a child has over his lifetime, the more he’ll be able to do the things he wants to do, such as buy a home, purchase the things he wants (not on credit), retire and more.
  • It’s fun. When you see money compound, your eyes fall out of your head. It’s more fun than living paycheck to paycheck, that’s for sure. 
  • It’s habitual. Get it together early on and those good money habits will follow your child the rest of his life. Encourage him to put 10 percent of his income into a retirement account and increase that account a little bit at a time. Your child will be in good shape if she keeps it up till retirement!
  • It makes him a lifelong money learner. Books about money these days are so dang good. And so inspiring! Check out Why Didn’t They Teach Me This in School?. He might start stuffing it into his trig book and devouring it during class. 

Money Topics Your Child Won’t Learn in School 

Here’s what your child needs to learn about money management from you, through books and other methods.

Budgeting and Other Fun Stuff 

Budgeting 101 is typically not an essential high school class, so check out the basic budgeting steps your child should know. Why not let him in on all your expenses and bills so he sees what you do?

  1. Add up expenses like rent, utilities, internet, groceries, clothes, household supplies — you know, those fun adult things you get to tackle each month.
  2. Add up income. How much money do you make from all income sources?
  3. Subtract expenses from income. 
  4. Understand the difference between “needs” and “wants.” Start applying this now. “Needs” should only include necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and more. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and expensive jeans. A really crucial lesson for kids to understand!
  5. Sign up for automatic bill pay. Incurring extra fees or interest when you fail to pay your bills on time is a real bummer — and it can ding your credit. Show your child how you pay for everything on time.

Make it fun! Your child can tap into lots of budgeting apps, like YNAB and Mint.

College Costs

Encourage your child to learn about college costs, including a few keywords:

  • Tuition: The cost of taking classes at a college
  • Room: On-campus housing
  • Board: Meals on campus
  • Activity fee: Fee to go to events on campus
  • Total cost: The sticker price — most students won’t pay this amount!

Let Quatromoney help you (and your child) understand college costs. Quatromoney helps you assess how savings and cash can help your child reduce the need for loans. The company helps your child plan for four years, not just the first year of college.

Student Loans 

It’s really important to understand student loans — heck, all loans! — because your child might need them to pay for college.

Student loans seem super complicated, right? They are. For now, let’s reduce student loans into just a few quick facts:

  • You pay interest when you borrow. Interest is the amount your child pays (a percentage of a loan) to borrow money. In other words, when your child borrows money for student loans, it costs more money to pay them back. The longer your child takes to pay them back, the more he owes. (Does your child understand this stuff?) 
  • Take federal loans first and private loans as a last resort. (Let’s go over this more in a second.)
  • Get to know the college’s financial aid office. Financial aid officers can help your child navigate everything. Get to know the financial aid personnel at your child’s college. You’ll be happier for it.

Now, onto the basics of federal and private student loans. 

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Federal Student Loans

The U.S. Department of Education offers Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans and Direct PLUS loans, including Grad PLUS loans for graduate and professional students and Parent PLUS loans for parents of undergraduate students. 

What to know: Federal student loans trump private student loans for several reasons:

  • No credit checks are involved (although Direct PLUS loans do require a credit check).
  • Your child might qualify for an income-based repayment plan once he graduates, which means it depends on how much money your child makes once he graduates from college. 
  • They’re most often forgiven, which means your child may not have to repay. This depends on which career your child chooses after graduation.
  • Federal student loan interest rates are lower compared to private loans.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans fill in the need gap after your child exhausts all scholarship, grant, savings and federal student loan options. 

What to know: Private loans often require a co-signer. This person is commonly you or another relative. A co-signer needs a good credit score and needs to show proof of income.

Finally, remember that co-signers are just as responsible for paying back loans. Have a conversation with your child about risk and how your child plans to repay private loans before your child agrees to co-sign.

Starting a Retirement Fund — Now! Yes, Now! 

Let’s go back to that fun math problem we did at the very beginning of this article. It took Caroline 51 years to earn a million dollars. Sixty-five years old might feel like it’s a lifetime away. 

I’ll repeat what Grandma told your child a million times: “You’ll be my age before you know it, Sonny!” 

She’s right — you know that now! (How do the years slip by?)

Do you wish you’d saved $2,000 for five years starting at age 14? I’m sure you do. Hopefully that example is enough of a motivation. Hopefully it propels your kid to scrape up the money from every birthday he’s ever had and invest it.

What to know: If your child’s earned income, she can contribute to a Roth IRA. This could include money earned from a W-2 job or even from self-employment gigs like dog-sitting. 

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Help Your Child with Financial Literacy

It’s easy for a high schooler to think, “I’ve got plenty of time to figure this stuff out!” 

It’s easy to say, “Retirement’s like, 100 years away.”

It’s not! Help your child with this knowledge and let her peer over your shoulder when you’re doing things like paying bills online. Involve your child — they’re great lessons for the future.

Take Advantage of College Savings Month in September!

Take Advantage of College Savings Month in September!

September is College Savings Month! Saving for college can seem like one of those long, arduous tasks that never ends… like figuring out what to make for dinner for the rest of your life, perpetual laundry, etc.

I know there are a couple of fears out there when it comes to saving for college. They’re super real, and it would be silly not to address them.

Some common fears stop us from saving for college. Let’s address these so you can jump right in and start saving.

1. The Fear of Believing You Won’t Save Enough

Are you worried that you’ll never be able to save enough? Do your eyes get wider and wider every year as college costs rise? Worries about not being able to save enough may be enough to stop you before you even get going. 

Here’s the deal. You may not be able to save enough money to pay for every penny of your child’s college education — I get how it can get you down before you even start.

However, here are some quick reminders:

  1. Your child may qualify for merit-based scholarships. 
  2. You can take advantage of a tuition installment plan. (Don’t forget how much purchasing power your monthly income has!)
  3. The sticker price is just a starting point. I don’t know a single student who paid the full sticker price to attend our institution when I worked in admission. 
  4. Price transparency may continue over time. A handful of schools have started to reduce their costs using something called a tuition reset. It attempts to offer more transparency in the college cost landscape. Check out an article I wrote about tuition resets for the “Journal of College Admission” and what they mean.
  5. Colleges may be getting more creative in the pandemic’s wake. For example, check out Unity College’s new Distance Education and Hybrid Learning plan, where students can choose to take only one or two courses per term to be full-time and can choose online, in-person or a combination of both. 
  6. Federal financial aid is usually easy to get. 

Bottom line, try to save as much as you can, even if it’s just a little bit.

2. The Fear of Getting it Wrong

It’s hard to start something new. It’s even tougher when you think you might get it all wrong. So what do we sometimes do? That’s right — never even start. 

How do you get over the fear of doing something big in your life?

That’s right — you just take a deep breath and do it. 

For the longest time, I was afraid of planting a garden. I wasn’t sure how to do it, despite the fact that I grew up helping my parents pick green beans. My parents always planted a vegetable garden (they still do!) — full of delicious zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn and more. You know, though, when you’re a kid, you don’t really pay attention to allll the details — how to plant the seeds, when to plant them, how to make the rows and more. Plus, I was worried about whether or not I’d have time to keep up with the weeds. 

But one spring, I said, “Enough is enough. We’re going to have a garden!” My husband and I took the plunge, tried it, and we’ve had a garden for two years now. No more excuses!

Did we fail? Yeah — our tomatoes didn’t grow the first year. I think we ended up with only six pea pods. But we got better the next year! Our tomatoes are flourishing right now and we have more than we could ever eat. We’ve had to give oodles away to the neighbors!

Even if you don’t get quite started the way you want on your college savings plan, you can pivot. The point is, get started and go from there. 

Fortunately, many college savings plans (like 529s) you can enter your risk tolerance, child’s age and your investment gets more conservative naturally. In most cases, it’s impossible to mess it up!

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3. The Fear of Thinking You’re Behind

Has your best friend been saving for college for 18 years — before her child was even born? And you haven’t been able to save that much all?

Your child is more likely to go to college if you’ve saved just a little bit. Even with savings of less than $500, a child is 25% more likely to enroll in college and 64% more likely to graduate compared to a student with no savings, according to a study from the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).

4. Thinking You Don’t Have Enough on Hand to Save

Worried about not having extra cash to plump up a college savings account? What if, instead of agonizing over this, think of it as the fun part. How creative can you get?

Can you manipulate your budget? 

Sit down and divide your expenses into “needs” and “wants.” “Needs” should only include those necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and school supplies. 

Anything else that isn’t an essential expense should be put into your “want” category. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and nice clothes that aren’t required for a job.

Can you make more money?

What if you made some spare cash every month and vowed to dedicate this to college savings? Do you have a specific talent or skillset? 

What is the best thing that you can charge $10 for? Do that, then do it 10 more times! Can you make crochet hats? Can you sell your PR skills? Make birthday cakes? Babysit? Serve as a sales consultant? Figure out what it is that you can do so well that someone else will pay you money to do it.

My friend Angela makes these gorgeous signs for her company, Touch of Twine Design. They are so beautiful. They’re white with a beautiful script font — and can say anything. Her customers order inspirational quotes, poem snippets, Bible verses — whatever they want. The money she makes goes into a college account for her two boys. 

Another couple I know scavenged pallets on the side of the road, at work at a manufacturing facility and more to make furniture, sold it online and made a lot of money.

The sky’s the limit. What talent can you offer the world?

5. Not Knowing How to Save

It’s a case of too many options, isn’t it? You can invest in regular savings accounts, CDs, 529 plans, UTMA/UGMAs, Roth IRAs, custodial accounts, and on and on.

I LOVE all of these for different reasons, but I really recommend checking out UNest. It’ll give you a quick win right away! It offers a tax-advantaged savings plan option based on your risk tolerance and age of your child. 

 Can you invest in stocks for college? Sure! Just like you can invest in regular mutual funds, bonds and more investing options we’ve listed.

However, the advantage of investing with UNest or any 529 plan is that you get tax benefits.

Is this your only option? Of course not!


A stock is an investment in a specific company. You buy one share of a company’s earnings and assets when you buy a stock. Companies sell shares of stock in their businesses to raise cash. You can sell stocks when they increase in value and this method can also result in high returns. 


You lend money to a company or government when you buy a bond. Your bond purchase allows the bond issuer to borrow your money and pay you back with interest.

Bonds offer lower returns but do come with the risk that the bond issuer could default on its payments. (However, bonds are typically very safe investments.) Government bonds are the safest investment because they’re backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government. 

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are bundles of stocks, bonds and other investments. You can purchase a large number of these types of investments in one transaction. You pay a professional manager to invest your money. It’s typically more expensive to buy mutual funds than stocks or bonds because you pay a middleman to manage that money.

Index Funds

An index fund is a type of mutual fund — but there’s a difference. An index fund passively tracks an index. This means you don’t pay a money manager to pick and choose investments for you. For example, all S&P 500 index funds follow the performance of the S&P 500 by holding company stock within that index.

Exchange-Traded Funds

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are also a type of index fund because they also track an index. Like index funds, they are not actively managed and less expensive than mutual funds.

The difference between index funds and ETFs is that ETFs trade on an exchange like a stock — you can buy or sell throughout the trading day as the price fluctuates. Mutual funds and index funds, on the other hand, are priced once at the end of each trading day.

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Certificates of Deposit (CDs)

When you buy a certificate of deposit (CD), you give your financial institution money for a specific time period. When that time period is over, you get the amount you originally invested, plus a prespecified amount of interest. The longer the loan period, the higher your interest rate. Note that you’ll have to pay penalties if you take your money out sooner.

How do you invest in any one of these types of investments?

  • Go to an insured financial institution like a bank or credit union for a CD or government bond. 
  • You can go to a financial advisor for a mutual fund. 
  • You can find mutual funds, index funds or ETFs through a discount broker like Robinhood or a large broker like Vanguard.

Just remember, investing in a 529 plan offers more tax benefits for approved educational expenses — but a 529 plan isn’t your only option.

6. Fear of Future College Costs

Ahhhh… This is a tough one. Use a college calculator like the College Board’s College Cost Calculator to determine how much it may cost to send your child to college for four years. I plugged in some numbers and it informed me that in 11 years, it’ll cost me over $311,000 to send my child to college.

I understand the the numbers look scary. However, I still come back to this: 

  1. Merit-based scholarships take care of a chunk of the costs.
  2. A tuition installment plan can help with month-to-month costs.
  3. The sticker price is just a starting point and in no way says that you’ll pay the full price.
  4. You can use creativity to save. (What’s that talent, again?)

Take Advantage of College Savings Month!

If you’re ready to save for college, now’s the time! You have so many options at your fingertips, so take advantage of it.

Don’t forget to get the start-of-school checklist for the college search!

10 Totally Simple College Dorm Hacks on the Cheap

10 Totally Simple College Dorm Hacks on the Cheap

I’m camping in Colorado right now (er… we’re glamping). That made me think of living in a dorm room, so an idea for college dorm hacks on the cheap was born! 

Plus, August is screeching around the corner! You may be spending loads of money on college tuition but might draw the line at accessorizing your child’s dorm room. (That can get so expensive!) Here are some tips, tricks and dorm room hacks to make sure room decor and accessories don’t cost an arm and a leg.

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1. Organize with Plastic or Wire Storage Containers.

Space is limited in a dorm, so what’s the first thing you need to get squared away? Yep, storage. There’s no better way to do that then to get small plastic or wire mesh containers. (I suggest getting smaller items. Giant plastic storage containers are great but who wants to dig and dig and dig to find stuff at the bottom? These can go under beds, in closets, even under bathroom sinks if your child isn’t sharing a bathroom with a huge number of students. 

2. Use Duct Tape as a Cure-All.

Duct tape is the savior of so many things, whether for cords that beg to be strapped to the back of a desk or for a really old textbook from the “really used” book bin. It can bind a loose textbook or even hold the inside of a winter jacket together if your child’s really desperate. Duct tape is cheap and can (literally) do anything. I remember watching a couple of guys duct taping the bumper of a car back together — it lasted that way all semester during my junior year.

3. Decorate with Fabric Decor.

Residence hall rooms are usually pretty dull and uninspiring. White walls, carpetless floors — they’d make even the most savvy decorator cringe. You don’t need to be an expert designer to work miracles. Grab some fabric and cheap frames at a hobby store and frame the fabric. Your student can choose from a variety of wild and fun patterns and spend next to nothing. Your kiddo can even skip the frames and stretch fabric on canvas if it’s cheaper. Cinder blocks may never have looked so beautiful!

College dorm hacks: Stop buying fancy, expensive rugs and use carpet remnants instead!

4. Use Carpet Remnants Instead of Rugs.

Skip the rugs — they’re so expensive! See if a flooring store will give you cheap (or free!) carpet remnants. They can be way softer (and homier!) than the usual utilitarian floor in most residence halls. Carpet remnants can be used or tossed at the end of the year. 

To go an even cheaper route, find someone you know who’s getting new carpet and ask for remnants of the (new) carpet. They might even give it to you for free.

5. Make Good Use of Dryer Sheets.

Yep, you can totally use dryer sheets for laundry, but there’s another way to save money. Your child can put them on the fan or even the air conditioning unit! Regular air freshener is expensive and your child is not allowed to have candles and wax melts in most residence hall rooms.

College dorm hacks: Use scarves instead of expensive curtains! (Those dorm room windows aren't that big anyway.)

6. Use Scarves as Curtains.

Curtains can get super expensive, so why not use a colorful medley of scarves? It’ll at least block out those tacky rolscreen windows with built-in blinds. Your child can opt for sheers or solids and make it as colorful as she wants to. You may even want to sew some together if you’re not too concerned about getting them back.

Dorm room hacks: Get rid of plastic hangers. They take up too much space in those minuscule closets!

7. Forgo Plastic Hangers for Wire Hangers.

We all know there’s super limited space in dorm room closets. The metal bar for clothes may only be a foot or two long, so use wire hangers instead. I learned this trick at my parents’ business. My dad owned a dry cleaners and we only used wire hangers at our house. Trust me, they take up way less space and you can buy them cheap.  

8. Use Hair Ties to Create Double Clothes Hangers.

There’s a reason I listed clothes storage twice — it’s a big problem in dorm rooms. Instead of buying more hangers (that won’t fit in the closet anyway) twist hair tie ponytail holders all the way down to the neck of the hanger, then loop them there so you can hang an extra shirt or pair of pants in front. You can also use pop tabs if you have a lot of those laying around, but hair ties are often bunched up in all sorts of drawers (they are in our house, anyway!)

Another piece of advice: Make sure your child doesn’t take every single piece of clothing she owns to college. It won’t fit and she likely won’t wear all of it, anyway. If you can, plan to take just one seasonal wardrobe at a time. For example, take fall gear to school in August with one light jacket. If you live close enough, you can meet up with winter gear in October or November, or have it shipped if your child is going to school far away.

9. Use a Storage Cart for Bedside Essentials.

Thrift store finds like a storage cart can be perfect to store bedside essentials. It’s a great place to stash a laptop because your kiddo’s too tired to make it to the desk in the middle of late-night studying. Your child can also store books, phone, snacks and more on it if there’s just the teensiest bit of energy to slide these materials off the bed.

Dorm room hacks: Rehome some things from home. There's no reason to spend thousands at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

10. Rehome Some Things from Home.

There’s no reason your kid needs to buy brand-new things to make a residence hall room cute. There’s plenty of stuff lying around that could migrate to school. Why not paint Grandma Flora’s lamp that hasn’t been used since 1975? Rehome pencil holders and use old paint cans for storage — once they’ve been decorated? 

Now’s the time to get creative! What else can be reused? A duvet stashed in the back of the closet? Who says everything needs to be brand new?

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Final Tips

Dorm room hacks shouldn’t be as hard as helping your child figure out her college major. This is easy stuff. Do you live close to the college where your child is planning to attend? You may be able to tour your child’s future residence hall room. If you’re a little further away, you may be able to have someone from the admission office take photos of the room ahead of time so you and your child can plan some great ways to decorate that cinder block room.

Don’t forget a few other essentials:

  • Surge-protected power strip: You’ll need one to set up your child’s electronics and protect them from electrical surge damage.
  • Long phone charging cord: There are a limited number of outlets in rooms, so an extra-long charging cable can come in handy.
  • Mattress pad: Don’t forget this little detail! The pad makes the mattress comfier and feels like home.
  • Trash can: Residence hall rooms don’t come with trash cans in most cases. You can pack things in a trash can when you’re packing up your child’s school items, too!
  • Command strips: Don’t be destructive when you’re hanging things on your kid’s walls. They’re perfect for hanging heavier things, too!
  • Masks: Don’t just bring one mask — they’ll need to be washed every other day or so.
  • Hand sanitizer: Don’t forget to have an ample supply of hand sanitizer on hand for your child.
  • Disinfecting wipes: Buy disinfecting wipes or make your own. It’s easy!

Is a Home Equity Loan for College the Best Idea Ever?

Is a Home Equity Loan for College the Best Idea Ever?

Here’s a little-known fact: There’s no law that says you have to pay for college using student loans. In fact, I encouraged everyone I came in contact with during their college tours to get as creative as possible as they carefully mapped out how to pay for college.

As interest rates drop, it’s natural to think that there may be other options to pay for college. Only one percent of parents used a home equity loan to pay for college, according to a 2015 Sallie Mae study called How America Pays for College.

But what if you did tap into your home equity to pay for college? It’s worth exploring! However, also know that it might not be the right fit for you at all. Let’s explore your options. 

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What is Home Equity?

The words “home equity” sound complicated, but it’s actually really simple — home equity refers to the amount of your home that you actually own. As you make payments on your mortgage, you reduce your principal, the amount you owe on your loan. As you do that, you build your home equity. You only own the percentage of your home that you’ve paid off. Your mortgage lender owns the portion of your home until you pay off your loan.

See, simple! Are you with me? Here’s an example:

Let’s say you bought your house for $100,000 with a 20% down payment of $20,000. You automatically get $20,000 in equity on closing day. Every mortgage payment helps you build more and more equity, as long as your home value doesn’t drop. 

What happens when you’ve fully paid off your mortgage? That’s right — you’ve got 100 percent equity in your home, and that’s a beautiful thing.

How Do You Determine Your Home Equity?

Don’t know how much equity you have? That’s okay. I didn’t really know how much equity we had in our home, either, till we refinanced. The mortgage payment was one thing around my house that actually took care of itself — unlike our kids, garden and landscaping. We had it set up on autopay and it truly didn’t need a lot of attention. (I know, not the best approach. It’s always good to know exactly what your home equity is at any given time.)

Here’s how to figure out your home equity:

  1. Log in to your lender’s website or call your lender to determine how much you owe.  
  2. Figure out how much your home is worth. Subtract your loan balance from your estimated home value. For example, let’s imagine you owe $100,000 on your home and you believe your home is worth $200,000. Subtract $100,000 from $200,000. This means you have an estimated $100,000 in equity in your home.
  3. Keep making your monthly payments if you want to continue to build your home equity. Simple, huh?

Types of Home Equity Loans and Lines of Credit

Resist hitting the snooze button here. Let’s very briefly go over a few points on home equity loans, cash-out refinances and home equity lines of credit (HELOC).

Home Equity Loan

A home equity loan is exactly the same thing as taking out a second mortgage. You repay the loan with equal monthly payments over a fixed time period (just like you did with your original mortgage) and you receive the money as a lump sum amount. Your home is used as collateral to protect your lender in case you’re unable to pay back the money you owe and you default on your loan.

The amount you can borrow usually depends on your lender, but is usually limited to 85 percent of the equity in your home. The actual amount you’ll be able to get also depends on your income, debt-to-income ratio, credit history and the market value of your home.

Cash-Out Refinance

A cash-out refinance is different from a home equity loan. To put it simply, you borrow more than you owe on your mortgage and pocket the difference.

When you get a second mortgage, you add another payment to your list of payments every month. A cash-out refinance is different — you pay off your old mortgage and replace it with your new mortgage.

Here’s how it works. Imagine your home is worth $150,000 and you’ve paid off $50,000. This means you still owe $100,000 on your home. Let’s also say that you want to use $10,000 to pay for college.

A cash-out refinance lets you take a portion of your equity and add that $10,000 to your new mortgage principal. In other words, your new mortgage would be worth $110,000 — the $100,000 you still owe plus the amount you want to borrow for college. You’ll get the $10,000 a few days after you close on your new refinance.

Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC)

A HELOC is a second mortgage just like a home equity loan. However, you don’t get your money in a lump sum like you do with a home equity loan. Instead, think of a HELOC more like a credit card. HELOCs allow you to draw from your predetermined loan amount as you need it.

You can draw from your HELOC between five and ten years and just need to pay interest on the money you take out. Let’s say you have $50,000 equity in your home. You can take out money as you need it for college during the draw period and will only pay interest on the money as you take it out.

When do you pay off the loan principal? Not until the end of your draw period. The repayment period usually lasts 10 to 20 years and you pay both interest and principal on the amount you borrow. 

Another difference between HELOCs and home equity loans is that the rate is adjustable over time, which means it changes over time depending on the prevailing interest rate.

Mouse Traps

Ha ha, do you like that section header? I named it that because we currently have a mouse in our van and even worse, my husband can’t find it. I am driving a van that has a mouse currently living in it. I bet it has babies. I bet it has a whole brood of baby mice. 

It’s horrifying. I keep expecting a mouse to jump onto my lap as I’m traveling 55 miles per hour down the highway. I’ll be holding a mug of tea, my mug will fly out of my hands and I’ll wrench the steering wheel in horror and crash into the ditch, sending the mouse and everyone in the car flying through the air with second-degree tea burns.

Anyway, I digress. 

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Cons of Tapping Home Equity to Pay for College

Even if a home equity loan offers a lower interest rate than private loans or even federal loans, a low interest rate isn’t the only reason to go after a home equity loan. Here are some major downsides to using a home equity loan to pay for college:

  • Your home is used as collateral. What happens if you can’t pay back the loan? Your house can be whisked away by the bank — just for a college education. That’s a pretty big risk.
  • Home equity loans don’t offer much flexibility. Federal student loans offer forbearance and deferment options. In other words, your student may be able to temporarily stop making loan payments. (The main difference between the two is if that deferment means no interest will accrue on your child’s loan balance. Forbearance means interest does accrue on your child’s loan balance.) In some cases, federal student loans can be completely forgiven — your child doesn’t have to pay them back at all. 
  • Interest rates might not be lower. Compare student loan interest rates to home equity loan interest rates. Which ones are higher? 

Pros of Using Home Equity to Pay for College

  • Ease. As long as your credit score and debt-to-income ratio is good, tapping into your home equity is fairly easy to do. Note: It usually takes 30 to 45 days to get a home equity loan, HELOC or cash-out refinance, though that depends on the lender.
  • Tax benefits. Interest is tax deductible on home equity loans, HELOCs or cash-out refinances.
  • Interest rates might be lower. They might be lower than private student loans. However, it’s worth looking into if a private student loan carries a 5.25 percent interest rate and you can get a home equity loan with a five percent interest rate. Even a quarter of a percentage can make a difference.

Other Things to Consider

Having a lot of equity in your home isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get a home equity loan, cash-out refinance or HELOC. You still need a decent debt-to-income ratio and credit score to be able to tap into your home equity and you’ll also need to get a home appraisal. I’ll briefly chat about debt-to-income ratio and credit score and how that can impact your ability to tap into your home’s equity.

Your Debt-to-Income Ratio

Lenders use something called your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to determine how your monthly debt payments compare to your monthly income. Your DTI should be around 43 percent. You can calculate it yourself: 

DTI = Total Monthly Debt Payments / Gross Monthly Income

  1. Add up all of your monthly debt payments, including your primary mortgage, student loans, car loan, credit card bills, alimony, child support, etc.
  2. Divide the sum by your gross monthly income (your income before taxes and deductions).
  3. Multiply by 100 to find your DTI.

Here’s an example. Imagine all your debts total $2,000 and you earn $5,000 a month before taxes, your DTI would be 40 percent. 

Your Credit Score

Lenders will also be interested in learning more about your credit score. Simply put, if you want to obtain a home equity loan, your credit score should be 620 or higher. However, if other qualifications (like your DTI) are higher, a credit score a little lower than this might be overlooked. However, the higher your credit score, the lower your interest rate will be.

Next Steps

Reach out to various lenders to determine whether one of these options are right for you. Ask about:

  • Closing costs
  • Annual fees
  • Home appraisal expenses
  • Taxes
  • How long it will take to pay off your loan
  • Length of time to get a home equity loan, home equity line of credit (HELOC) or cash-out refinance
  • Private student loan options
  • The total cost you’ll need to repay

You don’t need to stick to the same lender that provided your primary mortgage. Reach out to other lenders (challenge yourself to look into five!) because others might offer better interest rates and terms.

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Determine Whether to Tap into Home Equity for College

I tell everyone who will listen that I recently refinanced my home. The interest rate I got was so low I couldn’t believe it — I didn’t think interest rates could possibly get lower than 4.25 percent — our original interest rate. Now I’m the proud owner of a 2.25 percent interest rate mortgage!

So. Here’s the problem. You might start snoring hard every time you hear the words “home equity.” But don’t! It’s easy to plod along, which is what my husband and I were doing until I heard a podcast host say, “You need to look into refinancing. It could change your life.”

I stopped, mid-plod. “Whaaaaa???”

Now, a refinance is different from a home equity loan. But the point is, it’s easy to get complacent and not look into all your options. If I hadn’t listened to that podcast, we’d still be stuck with an interest rate that wasn’t right for us.

Do some careful searching to make sure that tapping into your home’s equity is the right way to go. Sure, interest rates might be lower than private student loans, but remember, your home is on the line.

How to Get a College Savings Quick Win if Your Kid’s in High School

How to Get a College Savings Quick Win if Your Kid’s in High School

“My child’s going to be a … freshman/sophomore/junior/senior/eighth grader!” 

Has this realization hit home multiple times this summer?

Does it feel like life is going at warp speed? If so, I hear ya. I mean, wasn’t it just May? Uh, and wasn’t kindergarten a week ago? 

Now that the start of the school year’s almost upon you (are you as nervous as me?), you may be faced with an unsettling feeling that has nothing to do with germs. 

Your internal voice may be saying something like this: I haven’t saved much (if anything) for college.

You’re not the one with a block of ice in your stomach. After all, there’s nothing like the start of school to make this paralyzing realization hit hard.

It’s okay. You can still save for college, even if your child’s going to be a senior. It’s never, ever too late. Here are your options for college savings strategies — and keep reading for a quick win!

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Why Save for College? 

It might be hard to gather the excitement and momentum to save for college if you haven’t been doing it since your child was a baby. You miss out on compounding interest over time when you haven’t saved for years. (Compounding interest is additional interest added to the principal sum of your initial investment. In other words, it means interest on interest.)

But remember, 18 years is actually a relatively short amount of time compared to 30, 40 or more years — a lifetime of working and saving for retirement. 

Something is better than nothing at all!

Here are some great reasons to save for college, even if it’s only a year away:

  1. It’s a great idea to get in the habit of pretending like you’re making installment payments toward college. Do you know that your regular earnings have great power and potential? In other words, you can do a lot to contribute for college with your regular paycheck. An installment plan is a monthly payment plan that helps you pay for college, typically during an eight, nine or 10-month period. Saving for college before you make installment payments prepares or when you actually need to start making payments.
  2. You may be able to amass a nice chunk of change. Like your parents always told you, it’s amazing to see what you can do when you set your mind to something. Start with a goal in mind and watch it blossom into a tangible amount of money. It’s amazing how much power a little idea generates!
  3. Family members might be able to chip in. Many 529 plans make it easy for family and even friends to contribute. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of giving friends and family a link and a code to your child’s 529 account. (We’ll cover 529 plans in a sec.) The dollars can really start rolling in when you tell your child’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, church family — who else can you add to the list? Make it a policy that now that your child’s in high school or approaching high school, clothes and video games are not acceptable birthday or holiday gifts. Ask for money instead.
  4. You might have already saved more money than you think. Did you know that you can use money from your Roth IRA tax-free to make payments for college? And you can use money already collecting dust in your savings account for college. It’s a matter of reframing your intentions and building even more momentum so you can save even more. But don’t stop saving, even if you realize you’ve got more in the hopper than you realized.
  5. It’ll help your child take out fewer student loans. The more you pay out of pocket, the fewer loans you’ll need to cosign or that your child will need to take out. That’s a pretty good reason all by itself!

Now, onto my super secret quick win!

1. Here’s the Quick Win!

Here’s how to get a quick, quick, quick win. Will you promise you’ll do it with me? Okay, great!

  1. Download the UNest app on your phone.
  2. Establish a monthly payment plan. 
  3. Keep track of your savings.

UNest is awesome because it literally is so easy. You don’t have to fill out mounds of paperwork. You can choose investments based on your child’s age, add your bank account and you’re done. It takes minutes.

Friends, it’s literally that easy to set up a 529 plan. 

Okay, so I can hear the rebuttals now: But what if I don’t want to use a 529 plan for my kids? What if I want something with more flexibility? I’m scared. I don’t like to make decisions like this.

Taking action is the antidote to fear and inaction. I know how easy it is to put something off because you’re scared of the unknown. Open that account anyway, and here are the next steps you can take.

2. Determine how much you can save per month.

Saving is a delicate balance of filling all the buckets, isn’t it? You’ve got the grocery bucket, mortgage bucket, car payment bucket, and on and on. Now that you have the college bucket, how much can you put in it?

Sometimes it’s easier to start small and work your way up. Don’t pledge right off the bat to save for every penny. (Remember, your child may get scholarships.) Sometimes those unattainable goals or seemingly impossible goals make us quit before we’ve even started.) Don’t do that to yourself. Make sure it’s attainable! 

Also, only take into account reliable income when setting your goal. If you need to adjust your goal, that’s okay, as long as it’s realistic.

Here’s a common tripping-up point: How much should you save? Save as much as you possibly can! Your goal of saving for your child’s education is an admirable one. 

3. Write it down!

Why is it that we’re more apt to scrape and pinch and divert money from one source to pay a bill but we don’t do the same to pay ourselves first? 

For example, in my own life, we just paid our taxes (at the very last minute) but I made sure we had enough money in our checking account over the last couple of weeks to make it happen. What if I applied that same kind of care to making sure I saved extra throughout the year?

Pretend like saving for college is another obligation — and write down your goals! There’s so much power in writing it down. It can look something like this: 

“I plan to save $1,000 every month for my child’s college education. I will not stop until I have $24,000 in an account.”

Writing down a goal helps you: 

  • Reduce the possibility of failure. Specific goals — written down! — mean you’re more likely to achieve them because you have a constant reminder of what you’re working toward.
  • Focuses you: Life is crazy most days, right? Goals help you be more strategic because you can zoom in on what you want to achieve.
  • Measure your success: It’s easier to determine whether you’ve had success when you have goals you’ve started with. Nothing feels better than seeing how far you’ve come compared to where you started!
  • Keeps you motivated: You build momentum when you’re hitting your goals and feel like there’s nothing you can’t do. Think about the last time you worked really hard for something! How did you feel? Chase that feeling by setting goals and achieving them!

4. Choose the right college savings strategies for you.

You can find literally hundreds of investment options available to you, from state-sponsored 529 plans to regular savings accounts. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. The part that trips people up the most is not knowing where to put their money. 

529 Plans

Wondering why the heck you’d open a 529 plan if it’s not going to gather much interest in just one or two years? Here’s a great reason: Opening up a 529 in one child’s name doesn’t mean that money needs to go to only that child. 529s can be transferred to your other children — or anyone else, like your niece or nephew. 

You’ll be able to find two different types of 529 plans: prepaid tuition plans and education savings plans. 

  • Prepaid tuition plans are plans in which you can pay in advance for all or part of the costs of attending a particular college. In other words, you can avoid future tuition jumps.
  • Education savings plans are a tax-advantaged savings account designed to be used for education expenses. You won’t pay income taxes on earnings as long as money stays in the account. When you pay for qualified education expenses (tuition, room, board, fees, books, etc.), those withdrawals may be federal income and state tax-free. 


  • All 50 states and the District of Columbia sponsor at least one type of 529 plan. Look into your state’s 529 plans for more information and to sign up or go to the handy UNest app for an even simpler experience.
  • The tax advantages are excellent!


  • Funds must be used for qualified educational expenses.
  • You’ll pay fees for each type of plan.
  • You’ll also encounter some ownership rules. You (not your child!) gets to make decisions about how the money is used.

Roth IRAs

Just like with a 529 plan, you won’t pay income tax when you contribute to a Roth IRA. Your contributions and earnings grow tax-free. You can withdraw contributions at any time, for any reason, tax-free. 

The annual contribution limit for 2020 is $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older. 


  • The beauty of using a Roth IRA is that it has a dual purpose — you can save for retirement and college.


  • Taking out too much from your Roth IRA could hurt your future retirement goals.
  • Contribution amounts are limited to annual maximums. You’ll also face income restrictions.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

A Coverdell education savings account (Coverdell ESA) is a trust or custodial account you can set up to pay qualified education expenses for your child. ESAs offer tax-free qualified withdrawals and contributions are limited to $2,000 per year and there are income limitations too.

Coverdell accounts can cover educational expenses from kindergarten all the way through grad school.


  • Offers a wide variety of available investments and tax-free growth.
  • Offers more flexibility than 529 plans.


  • The beneficiary changes are not as straightforward as with a 529 account and can vary by custodian (the financial firm hosting the account).
  • Growth potential isn’t as great. 
  • All assets must be distributed to the beneficiary by age 30.

Other Investment Types

I’m going to list a few other types of investments you may want to look into: 

  • ETFs
  • Mutual funds
  • Savings accounts
  • Certificates of deposit (CDs)
  • Custodial accounts (UTMAs, UGMAs)

Here’s an overview of what all of those types of investments are in my post, How to Save Money in College

Also, remember that there are no rules here. You can combine strategies — you can use a 529 plan and a Roth, CDs and ETFs. 

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Make Sure Your Goals are Achievable — You Can Do This!

Post a sticky note with your kiddo’s last school picture on it. Scribble “1,000 for college” on the note. Knowing your “why” will help you stay motivated in months that feel like a major challenge.

It’s not too late, and you can do this. Set that goal, attack it and keep moving forward. You can do it!

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