How much does your teen know about the 529 account you opened for college savings?
Or, maybe you’ve mentioned it once or twice, but you aren’t sure it really registered.
That’s the norm. Pretty dry stuff for a teenager.
I have a radical suggestion.
Review your 529 statements with your teen. And do it every quarter.
Yes, your initial sessions will be received with eyeball rolls, yawns, or worse. But keep up the good fight.
Through your consistent and repetitive efforts, your teen will gradually learn the following:
- How much college costs. Circle the ending balance on the latest statement. Your teen’s eyes may light up the first time. Mine’s did. Now, ask your teen to name a favorite university. Google the annual tuition. Divide your current balance by the tuition figure. That’s how many years you can afford right now. Buzz kill.
- Where it makes sense to apply. Armed with the sobering perspective from step 1, your teen will naturally start thinking more carefully about where it makes sense to apply. Maybe starting in community college would be appropriate. Maybe it’s time to look into scholarships. Did your teen know there are scholarships for just about every interest? Even drawing ducks. Who knew?
- How saving and investing works. This one will take some time to soak in, so be patient and start simple.
Note how much money you’ve contributed to the account this period. Talk about how you’ve worked college savings into the family budget. If your contributions are automated, point out how that makes it easy to stay on track. If relevant, talk about how relatives have graciously contributed too.
Now zero in on the Investment Summary section. Talk about how the 529 funds don’t just sit there. You’ve put the money to work through investing.
Talk about how, early on when college was still far off, you had a pretty decent percentage in a low cost stock market index fund. That gave you a good shot at growing the money over time, even if the market went up and down a bit along the way. Circle the Total Portfolio Earnings entry to highlight that growth to date. Explain that now, with college getting closer, you’re shifting funds out of the market to reduce risk.
Here’s where, over several 529 review sessions, you can communicate incredibly valuable lessons about basic investing principles in a relevant, tangible, repetitive way.
- What a tax-advantaged account is. When you circle the portfolio earnings, scribble the words “tax fee” nearby each time. That’s one of the special things about a 529. The investments grow tax free. This will remind your kid to always be on the lookout for tax-advantaged investment opportunities — like that Roth IRA account you helped your teen open with that first summer job. Right?!
- What a qualified withdrawal is. Circle the Withdrawals line item. Explain that it may be zero now, but eventually you’ll be seeing how much is being pulled out each quarter to pay for school. Keep reiterating that the withdrawals are for qualified expenses only! Tuition? Yep. Books? Yep. Spring Break? Nope. Withdraw funds for the wrong thing, and you’ll be looking at some nasty penalties. Good to know.
- Gratitude. If you stick with your 529 reviews, this could be the biggest bonus of all. You might start hearing some crazy talk from your teen, like: “I need to take this college thing more seriously.” And, perhaps: “I really appreciate what you’re doing here.” Or, possibly even: “Maybe I should start putting part of my summer paycheck in the 529.” Stranger things have happened!
So, that’s 6 valuable lessons your teen can learn from reviewing 529 statements for 15 minutes every 3 months. Tough to beat those quarterly returns. Ready to make the investment?
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