Go to main content 1st Community Credit Union Login

Demystifying Saving for College: Top 5 Savings Options Explained

Demystifying Saving for College: Top 5 Savings Options Explained


Welcome future college students and parents, grandparents, and guardians! Congratulations on taking the first step towards securing a brighter tomorrow – saving for college! Whether you're planning for your child's future or a student eager to embark on a new educational journey, we've got you covered. So, let's dive in and explore various methods to save for college and discover the best way to fund your education!

A graduation cap and a jar of money sitting on a book in front of a chalkboard

1. 529 Savings Plans: Tax-Advantaged Education Savings


529 plans exist solely to fund education. These plans offer the potential for higher returns compared to traditional savings accounts but also carry a level of risk. The value of your account fluctuates based on market conditions and the performance of your chosen investment options. As with any investment, it's essential to consider your risk tolerance, time horizon, and financial goals. If you’re interested in a 529 savings plan please consider the following:


  • Investment Options: When you open a 529 plan, you'll have various investment options to choose from. These options can include mutual funds, index funds, or other investment vehicles. Each option has its own level of risk and potential for growth.


  • Market Performance: The rate of return for your 529 plan is determined by the performance of the investments you select. If the investments in your plan perform well in the financial markets, your account's value will increase, leading to higher returns.


  • Risk and Volatility: Higher-return investment options in your 529 plan often come with increased risk and volatility. While they have the potential for higher growth, they are also more susceptible to market downturns. On the other hand, conservative investment options may offer more stability but lower potential returns.


  • Time Horizon: The rate of return is affected by the time until the funds are needed for college expenses. Longer time horizons allow for more aggressive investment strategies, while shorter time frames may require a more conservative approach to protect against potential losses.


  • Fees and Expenses: Keep in mind that 529 plans may have fees and expenses associated with managing the investments. These costs can impact the overall rate of return, so it's essential to understand and compare the fees of different plans before making a decision.


  • Changing Investment Strategy: As the beneficiary gets closer to college age, some plans automatically adjust the investment strategy to become more conservative, reducing the risk as the time to use the funds approaches.


It’s important to bear in mind that a 529 savings plan requires time to grow and may not be ideal for students closer to college age. Also, these plans are specifically designed for education, and withdrawals for non-educational expenses will incur taxes and other penalties. Therefore, it is important to consider all your savings options.


2. Coverdell Education Savings Account: A Versatile Option


A Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) is also a tax-advantaged savings account designed to help families save for qualified education expenses. Here's how a Coverdell ESA works:


  • Eligibility and Contributions: To open a Coverdell ESA, both the contributor and the beneficiary (the student) must be U.S. citizens or residents. The beneficiary must be under 18 years old or have special needs. Contributions to a Coverdell ESA are not tax-deductible, meaning you contribute after-tax dollars.


  • Contribution Limits: The maximum annual contribution limit for a Coverdell ESA is set by the IRS and is subject to change. It is worth noting that this limit is relatively low compared to other education savings options like 529 plans. Contributions can be made until the beneficiary turns 18, except for beneficiaries with special needs, who can continue receiving contributions after 18.


  • Qualified Education Expenses: Funds in a Coverdell ESA can be used for qualified education expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, and certain room and board costs at eligible educational institutions (elementary, secondary, and post-secondary). Starting in 2018, K-12 (elementary and secondary) education expenses became eligible for Coverdell ESA withdrawals, thanks to changes in the tax law. This expanded the use of Coverdell ESAs beyond just college expenses.


  • Tax Advantages: While contributions to a Coverdell ESA are not tax-deductible, the account's earnings grow tax-free. Withdrawals from the account are also tax-free if they are used for qualified education expenses. This includes both the contributions and the earnings.


  • Investment Options: Coverdell ESAs allow you to invest in various financial products, such as mutual funds, stocks, and bonds. The investment options available will depend on the financial institution that holds the account.


  • Transfer and Rollover Rules: If the beneficiary does not use all the funds by the time they turn 30, they must withdraw the remaining balance within 30 days. If not used for qualified education expenses, the earnings portion of the withdrawal may be subject to income tax and a 10% penalty. Alternatively, the funds can be transferred or rolled over to another eligible family member's Coverdell ESA without incurring penalties.


  • Financial Aid Impact: Coverdell ESAs are considered an asset of the account owner (usually the parent), not the beneficiary. This means that the impact on financial aid eligibility is generally lower than with custodial accounts like UTMA/UGMA accounts.


A Coverdell ESA requires careful planning in order to use the funds and maximize the benefits. While it provides tax advantages for educational savings, the relatively low contribution limit may restrict the total amount saved. Therefore, it's worth considering other or additional savings options if you anticipate needing more money for educational expenses.


3. Custodial Accounts: A Gift to Your Future College Grad!


UTMA (Uniform Transfers to Minors Act) and UGMA (Uniform Gifts to Minors Act) are similar custodial accounts designed to hold and manage assets for the benefit of a minor until they reach the age of majority. The specific rules and regulations governing these accounts may vary slightly from state to state, but the general principles remain consistent. Here's how UTMA and UGMA accounts work:


  • Account Setup: An adult, often a parent or guardian, establishes the UTMA or UGMA account on behalf of the minor (the beneficiary). The adult acts as the custodian and manages the account until the beneficiary reaches the age of majority, which is usually 18 or 21, depending on the state and the type of account.


  • Contributions: The custodian can make contributions to the account, which typically consist of financial assets such as cash, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or other investments. Once the assets are to the UTMA or UGMA account, they become the property of the minor beneficiary.


  • Management of the Account: The custodian has the legal authority and responsibility to manage the assets in the account on behalf of the minor. The custodian can make investment decisions, collect income, and reinvest or distribute funds as needed for the beneficiary's benefit, as long as it aligns with the best interests of the minor.


  • Use of Funds: The purpose of UTMA and UGMA accounts is to provide financial support for the minor's benefit, such as education expenses, extracurricular activities, or other necessities. However, the custodian must use the funds solely for the minor's benefit, and it is not permissible to use the funds for personal purposes unrelated to the minor.


  • Age of Majority: When the beneficiary reaches the age of majority (18 or 21, depending on state law and the type of account), they gain full control over the assets in the UTMA or UGMA account. At this point, the custodian's role ends, and the beneficiary can use the assets as they see fit. They may use the funds for any purpose, even if it is not related to education or the original intention of the account.


  • Tax Implications: While the contributions to a UTMA or UGMA account are considered gifts for tax purposes, the earnings generated within the account may be taxed at the minor's tax rate. In some cases, a portion of the account's earnings may be tax-exempt up to a certain amount known as the "kiddie tax" threshold.


It's important to note that once the assets are transferred to a UTMA or UGMA account, they become irrevocable gifts to the minor beneficiary. Unlike other education-specific accounts like 529 plans or Coverdell ESAs, the funds in UTMA or UGMA accounts can be used for any purpose once the minor reaches the age of majority. This flexibility can be both an advantage and a potential concern, as the beneficiary will have full control over the funds at that point.


4. High-Interest Savings Accounts: A Steady Path to Your College Fund


High-yield savings accounts can be an effective tool for college savings due to their competitive interest rates and low risk. However, these accounts present challenges too. Here's how they work for college savings:


  • Higher Interest Rates: High-yield savings accounts, as the name suggests, offer higher interest rates compared to traditional savings accounts. This means your money will grow at a faster rate over time.


  • Safety and Security: High-yield savings accounts are typically offered by reputable financial institutions and are insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in the United States. This means that up to a certain limit (currently $250,000 per account holder per institution), your money is protected even if the bank fails.


  • Liquidity: High-yield savings accounts offer easy access to your funds when you need them. Unlike certain long-term investments, there are no penalties for withdrawing money from a savings account.


  • No Lock-in Period: Unlike share certificates or certificates of deposit (CDs), high-yield savings accounts do not have a fixed term. You can keep your money in the account for as long as you want without incurring any penalties.


  • No Contribution Limits: High-yield savings accounts do not have contribution limits, so you can deposit as much money as you want, subject to any limits imposed by the bank itself (which are usually quite high).


  • No Specific Use Requirement: Unlike some other college savings options, such as 529 plans or Coverdell ESAs, there are no restrictions on how you can use the money in a high-yield savings account. You can use the funds for any purpose, including college expenses.


While high-yield savings accounts offer many advantages, there are also some limitations to consider:


  • Lower Returns Compared to Investments: While high-yield savings accounts offer better returns than traditional savings accounts, they may still have lower growth potential compared to certain long-term investments, such as stocks or mutual funds.


  • Impact of Inflation: Inflation can erode the purchasing power of your savings over time. High-yield savings accounts might struggle to keep up with the rate of inflation, leading to a decrease in the real value of your savings.


  • Tax Considerations: The interest earned in a high-yield savings account is subject to income tax. For college savings, you may want to explore tax-advantaged options like 529 plans or Coverdell ESAs, which offer tax benefits specifically for educational expenses.


  • Limited Earning Potential: If you have a substantial amount of money to save for college, the earning potential of a high-yield savings account might be insufficient to reach your savings goals within the desired timeframe.


High-yield savings accounts can be a suitable option for college savings, especially if you prioritize safety, liquidity, and easy access to your funds. However, for those seeking higher returns and potential tax advantages, a more diversified approach should be considered.


5. Share Certificates or Certificates of Deposit (CDs): The Time-Locked Treasure


Share Certificates or Certificates of Deposit (CDs) can be used as part of a college savings strategy, providing a safe and predictable way to grow your money over a fixed period of time. Here's how Certificates and CDs can be utilized for college savings:


  • Safety and Stability: Certificates/CDs are considered low-risk investments since they are offered by banks and credit unions, and they are federally insured up to $250,000 per account holder per institution by the NCUA or FDIC (in the United States). This makes them an attractive option for conservative savers who prioritize the safety of their college funds.


  • Fixed Interest Rate: When you purchase a Share Certificate or CD, you lock in a fixed interest rate for a specified term, usually ranging from a few months to several years. This predictability allows you to know exactly how much your money will grow during the Certificate’s term, which can help with financial planning for college expenses.


  • Short and Long-Term Options: Depending on your college savings timeline, you can choose Certificates with different maturity periods. Short-term Certificates (6 or 12 months) might be suitable if college is just a few years away, while longer-term Certificates (2, 3, or 5 years) can be useful for longer-term planning.


  • Laddering Strategy: To maximize returns while maintaining some liquidity, you can use a Certificate laddering strategy. This involves dividing your college savings into multiple Certificates with varying maturity dates. As each Certificate reaches its maturity date, you can reinvest the funds into a new longer-term Certificate or access the money if needed for college expenses.


  • Penalties for Early Withdrawal: Certificates typically have penalties for early withdrawal before the agreed-upon maturity date. These penalties could include forfeiting a portion of the interest earned or a certain number of months' worth of interest. While this penalty discourages early withdrawals, it also ensures that the funds remain in the account for the specified savings period.


  • Tax Considerations: The interest earned on Certificates is generally taxable income, and you'll receive a 1099-INT form at the end of the year for tax reporting.


While Certificates offer stability and safety, they may not provide the highest returns compared to other investment options like stocks or mutual funds. To create a well-rounded college savings plan, consider diversifying your strategy.




Saving for college is a significant goal that requires careful planning and exploration to determine the best method for you. Consider a diversified approach to fit your financial goals, risk tolerance, and timeline. Combining Share Certificates with other college savings vehicles, like high-yield savings accounts or tax-advantaged education accounts, can help you achieve a balance between safety and growth potential.


As with any financial decision, consulting with a qualified financial advisor can help you make the best choices based on your unique circumstances and goals. And if you would like expert advice on saving for college, 1st Community Credit Union in Sparta, Tomah, and West Salem.

1st CCU puts member service 1st and makes affordable solutions easy.

« Return to "Blog" Go to main navigation


Go to main navigation

Join Our Newsletter

* Required Fields
Security Code: