If you have kids, you know that education is going to cost serious money.  In fact:

What’s a parent to do?  Obviously, you need to start saving – yesterday. There are some tax-advantaged savings vehicles out there, and I recommend taking advantage of every one you can get. Here are the basics, through the years:

 

For Kids in Daycare & Preschool

It’s not technically school at all, but it is definitely expensive.  My two youngest just started pre-k, and I can tell you with certainty – the relief when we crossed the finish line of “no more daycare payments” was palpable. The biggest thing for you to keep in mind with little ones at home is that you don’t have to push through the pricey daycare years by yourself. A little help is available:

Dependent Care Savings Account. You may be able to set aside up to $5000 (for married couples filing jointly) in pretax money in an account, if it is offered through your employer. Using pretax money may substantially lower your tax bill.  (Warning – this is a good one if you use daycare, not a babysitter you pay with cash. You’ll need to submit receipts and tax id number for reimbursement, and only some expenses qualify.)

Child Tax Credit. The Child Tax Credit changed in 2018 with the updated tax code. The total tax credit (per child) increased from $1,000 to $2,000. Remember that there are income limitations, so reaching out to a financial and/or tax planner (like the Cultivating Wealth team) is a good idea to see if you qualify.

Child Care Tax Credit. You can generally claim up to $3,000 in care expenses for one child or dependent younger than 12, an incapacitated spouse, or parent. If you have 2+ kids, you can’t claim more than $6,000 in expenses.

 

For Kids in Primary and Secondary School

Your tax strategies are limited here, probably because public school is F-R-E-E.  If both parents work, you may be able to get some help for camps or after school care from the Dependent Care Credit (same as above) up until age 12.

The Coverdell ESA (Education Savings Account) can be used for primary, secondary or post-secondary education expenses. Contributions are not tax deductible but do grow tax-deferred. Unfortunately, the limits are rather restrictive: you can only save $2000 per child, per year, which is just not enough, and there is an income limit of $110,000 (or $220,00 for a joint return).

It’s also worth mentioning that 529 College Savings Plans now allows funds in the plan to be used for private education expenses before college. You can contribute up to $15,000 per year to a beneficiary’s 529 plan. All contributions grow tax-free, and distributions can be taken tax-free as long as they’re used for qualifying education expenses. Federal law now allows you to withdraw up to $10,000 to pay for your student’s private K-12 tuition. However, you may face state taxes on withdrawals for K-12 tuition expenses – so make sure to check with your state before making any final decisions!

Finally, you can consider gifting as an option for Primary and Secondary school tuition expenses. If you are lucky enough to have a generous relative who wants to help pay for school, ask them to pay the school directly. Direct payments for health or education expenses are not considered taxable gifts. The taxable gift limit is currently $15,000.

 

For College and Post-Secondary Schools

The big one to know is the 529 College Savings Plan. As mentioned above, savings in a 529 plan grow tax-free in the account, and withdrawals are tax-free as long as they are used for education expenses. Traditionally, these plans have been used for college savings – but now you can use them for private K-12 tuition, as well. There are no income limits, and in New York, you even get a State (not Federal) tax deduction for contributions up $5000 (or $10,000 if married filing jointly). Investments are limited to what is in the plan, but this is an excellent choice for many parents.

Education Savings Bonds can also be a useful saving tool. You may be able to exclude interest earned on US Savings bonds from income if the funds are used for post-secondary education. Keep in mind that there are often income limits here, as well, that you’ll need to consider.

 

Other Alternatives

  • Depending on your age, a Roth IRA may be a good choice for education expenses. It may be a scary thought, but if you were around 40 when your child was born, you’ll be around the magic age of 59 and 1/2 when your child is ready for college, and withdrawals will be tax and penalty free. (Unless certain criteria are met, Roth IRA owners must be 59½ or older and have held the IRA for five years before tax-free withdrawals are permitted.)
  • You can create a bond ladder. Buy bonds (government or corporate) scheduled to mature at about the time tuition is expected to be due. There is no particular tax advantage here, but I like the timing strategy  – funds are scheduled to be available when they will be needed.

In summary, education expenses are likely to be big, and there is more than one way to skin a cat.  You need to save early and often, and it’s worth it to save taxes wherever you can.

That being said, recognize that it may not be possible to fully fund your child’s education, especially if you are starting later (and your child wants to attend a private school).  In my own experience, I see families funding education through some combination of savings, loans, scholarships, and current earnings (theirs and maybe the kids’ too); and that is OK!

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