Your little one may be grasping a rattle now, but she’ll soon be tossing a mortarboard in the air before you know it. Translation: It’s never too early to start thinking about how your family will pay for college.

We know it’s hard to think that far ahead when your biggest concerns are covering the costs of onesies, diapers and day care. But if you want a wake-up call, plug a few numbers into the College Board’s college cost calculator. Assuming tuition prices see 5 percent cost inflation a year, even if your child goes to a public, in-state university, her total cost for four years of higher ed could exceed $222,000.

Making a dent in that wallet-busting figure won’t seem quite as daunting if you get a jump on setting up a college fund. A smart way to do that is through a 529 plan, a type of tax-advantaged investment account designed specifically for saving for college. In a 529, your contributions grow tax-deferred, and your withdrawals down the line are exempt from federal and most state taxes — as long as you’re using the money to pay for qualified education costs.

If you’ve never set up a 529 plan before, here are some simple steps to follow.

  1. COMPARE YOUR 529 PLAN OPTIONS

    Each state and the District of Columbia sponsors at least one 529 plan, but you’re not limited to using the one that’s “yours.” You can invest in any state’s plan, no matter where you live or where your child eventually attends college. One benefit of using your own state’s plan, however, is that you could get a full or partial state tax deduction on your contributions, if your state offers that benefit. (Otherwise, you don’t get a tax deduction on your 529 contributions.)

    Also keep in mind there are two types of 529 plans: college-savings plans and prepaid tuition plans. College savings plans allow you to save for higher-education-related costs no matter where your child goes to school. A prepaid tuition plan, meanwhile, enables you to pay for tuition credits at participating colleges or universities at today’s prices. So if you’re positive you want your kid to attend your alma mater, for instance, you can use a prepaid tuition plan to lock in the cost of those credits now.

    Savingforcollege.com is a great place to start seeing what options are out there. You can look by state or compare plans using their search engine. Some things to watch for when comparison shopping: fees, which can eat into your returns; the investment options the plan provides; the plan’s average performance; and whether your own state offers a tax break on your deductions.

  2. CHOOSE THE CUSTODIAN AND THE BENEFICIARY

    The custodian is the account holder and the person who controls the money in the 529 plan, including how the funds are invested. The custodian is usually one of the parents. The beneficiary is the person whose college costs you’re trying to cover, i.e., your child or another relative.

    If you’re saving for your child, it’s better if a 529 is set up in your name versus, say, an aunt, uncle or grandparent. That’s because if a 529 remains in your name, it’s considered part of the parents’ assets when it comes time to calculate your future student’s financial aid package. Parents’ assets figure much less into the financial aid equation than a student’s assets does.

    If you’re saving for your child, it’s better if a 529 is set up in your name versus, say, an aunt, uncle or grandparent.

    But if your student is the beneficiary of a 529 plan set up by another relative, any distributions from the account will be considered a gift to the student and will count toward their income on financial aid forms. Grandparents are still welcome to make contributions, of course. If the state plan you pick allows it, they should consider putting their money into your 529 account rather than one they set up themselves — a much better gift idea than the toy of the moment.

    If you have more than one bundle of joy, consider opening separate accounts for each child, since the money has to be spent on the beneficiary you name — although you can switch the name of the beneficiary on your 529 down the line if you need to.

Setting up the correct 529 account beneficiary can greatly impact your chances of financial aid down the road. Twenty20
  1. DECIDE HOW MUCH TO PUT IN, AND WHAT YOU WANT TO INVEST IN

    Think about how much you need to seed your account (some 529 plans require a minimum), as well as how much you think you can set aside on a regular basis to keep funding it. While your instinct is probably to contribute as much as possible now, don’t do so at the expense of other important goals like retirement — there’s no such thing as a merit scholarship for your golden years.

    Much like other types of investment accounts, you can invest the money in a 529 plan in assets like stocks, bonds and money market accounts. Some plans may offer age-based funds as well, which will rebalance your assets for you automatically depending on when your child will be attending college — the closer the first day of college gets, the more conservative the asset mix becomes.

  2. USE YOUR 529 PLAN MONEY WISELY

    The one drawback to 529s is that they have to be used for “qualified education expenses.” If you use the money for other purposes, you’ll have to pay taxes on it, plus an additional 10 percent federal tax penalty on earnings.

    Luckily, what’s considered qualified education expenses is pretty broad. It includes not just tuition and room and board, but also any school fees, books and tech expenses that are required for school, like the purchase of a laptop.

    But what if your brilliant Lila or Liam gets a full ride, or opts to skip college altogether for the school of life? All is not lost. Remember that the beneficiary can be changed to another child, another relative — or even to you, if you’ve been pondering finally getting that second degree.

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