How to Save Money For Kids: 5 Accounts All Parents Should Know About

Daniel Kurt
·6 min read

The question of how to save money for kids has led to its fair share of sleepless nights and sour stomachs. There’s just so much to figure out: How do I save for college? What accounts are best for creating a small nest egg for my kid? All the questions are good to ask because failing to give kids a cushion as they enter the real world can create a big emotional strain.

Consider this: More than six in ten college students graduated with student loan debt in 2019 and their average bill was $28,950, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. Couple that with chronically higher unemployment among recent graduates, and money issues can be a heavy burden for any young adult.

Building up savings now can help ensure that, when your children get a little older, they won’t have to worry as much about crippling student loans or where their next rent payment is going to come from. So, to the question of how to save money for kids: Put a little bit a way as often as you can in the right account. Here are the five accounts to consider.

1. Custodial Accounts

Federally insured child savings accounts and debit cards can be a great way to encourage your son or daughter to build healthy financial habits. But you can also open a custodial account in their name, which may be an even more effective way to save long-term.

Unlike child-managed bank products, kids don’t control custodial accounts — more formally known as UGMA/UTMA accounts — until they reach legal adulthood. While they legally own the account, you serve as its “custodian.” Any money you put in is an irrevocable gift to the minor, so there’s no take-backs.

Any funds deposited, from summer work money to Bat Mitzvah gifts, will stay put unless you make a withdrawal on their behalf. Once they turn 18 or 21, depending on your state, they’ll have a nice little reserve to fall back on.

2. Brokerage Accounts

Parents (and grandparents) looking for another smart way to save, with the potential for juicier returns, might want to think about a custodial brokerage account. Instead of their money sitting in a savings account generating tiny amounts of interest, you can invest in a range of stocks and bonds.

There’s always a risk that those stocks can fluctuate in value, so you might want to steer toward less volatile securities unless you have younger children with a longer time horizon. And unlike 529 college accounts, earnings are taxable (although at the child’s tax rate). But if you’re looking for a vehicle with a lot of investment flexibility that puts you in the driver’s seat until they’re grown, custodial accounts are a pretty solid choice.

You can open a UGMA/UTMA account at pretty much any of the main brokerage houses, including TD Ameritrade and Schwab. There’s also a new mobile app called EarlyBird, which lets friends and extended family contribute to your child’s investment account for a small fee. It won’t provide the same instant gratification as getting cash for their birthday, but in the long run letting the account grow will often provide a much bigger impact.

3. Trusts

Whereas UGMAs and UTMAs are built around ease, setting up a trust for your kids can be a more complex (and costly) undertaking. That doesn’t mean they don’t have important upsides, however.

Custodial accounts give kids 100% control over the funds when they reach the age of adulthood. But handing an 18-year-old unfettered access to larger balances, especially, can be a recipe for disaster.

Trusts mitigate some of that concern by enabling parents to spell out exactly how they want the funds dispersed. Perhaps you want to give your children funds in a series of installments, or would like for the assets to be used only on tuition. You can spell all that out in the trust.

Again, you don’t get the same tax benefits as a 529, but the degree of flexibility that trusts offer is hard to match. Don’t let the cliché about “trust fund kids” fool you— they can be a useful tool for middle-class families, too.

4. 529 Accounts

When it comes to heading off the massive tuition bills that likely awaits your kid in a few years, 529 savings accounts are still the go-to savings vehicle for most parents. The fact that students can withdraw money tax-free for qualified expenses—including room and board as well as required textbooks—is a big draw in its own right.

But, depending on where you live, parents get a nice perk, too. More than 30 states let you deduct at least a portion of your 529 contributions, according to SavingForCollege.com, so you can often reduce your own state tax bill while helping your kids save.

Do 529s give you all the investment flexibility you would have with a brokerage account? No. But the target date funds that most plans offer will keep a lot of parents happy.

Keep in mind that 529 plans aren’t just for college, either. Families can withdraw up to $10,000 a year, tax-free, to help pay the cost of private elementary, middle or high school tuition.

5. Roth IRAs

If you have a teenager at home, you’re probably more a lot more concerned about your retirement than theirs–and rightly so. But if you’re already on track with your own investments, starting a Roth IRA for child who works part-time isn’t such a crazy idea.

Part of it is simple math: because of the time value of money, even small amounts that they kick in now have the potential to experience decades of growth by the time they leave the workforce. And for younger investors, the tax benefits are especially potent.

Like any Roth account, kids can’t deduct contributions on their tax return. But unless your high-schooler has a particularly lucrative job, they probably don’t have a tax liability at this point anyway. Money grows tax-deferred and, as long as they don’t make any withdrawals until age 59½, they won’t have to pay a penny to Uncle Sam on the back end.

Crucially, these accounts aren’t just for retirement — they can also serve as a nice backstop when facing life’s biggest financial hurdles. For instance, your child can tap their Roth IRA earnings for qualified education expenses without paying an early withdrawal penalty (though they do have to pay income tax). And as long as they’ve had the account for five years or more, they can withdraw $10,000 for the purchase of a first home with no penalty or tax.

The one big restriction on Roth IRAs is that your child does need to generate income, but that can come from babysitting work or odd jobs in your neighborhood. For 2021, they can contribute up to $6,000, or 100% of their income, whichever is less. So if they make $1,000 at a part-time job, they can put up to $1,000 in their IRA this year.

Learning how to save money for kids can certainly pose a lot of questions. But these accounts are some of the very best tools out there for growing the funds you and your child will one day need.

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