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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