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Money Watch: Investing tips to help put kids through college

June 2, 2012

USA Today
by Christine Dugas

Q: I am a single parent. I will soon be debt-free and then I can set aside a little money for my daughter's college. Should I put it in a savings account or are there better options? I will only have four years to save.

A: Four years is not a long time horizon; however, you still need to be willing to take on some investment risk in order to grow your money.

A savings account will earn very little income at these low interest rates and you will owe tax on that interest income. But a well-diversified portfolio in a 529 plan offers better upside potential. And your earnings would grow tax free, and withdrawals would be tax free when used for college expenses.

In addition to federal tax benefits, many states offer tax deductions for 529 plan contributions. But some of the states are considering reducing or eliminating the tax deduction as they grapple with mounting budget deficits. Investors need to be very careful in choosing their own state's 529 plan solely on the basis of a state tax deduction that may or may not be there in the future.

It's wise to shop around before you choose a 529 plan. One of the best sites to compare and contrast plans is It provides a 5-Cap rating for each state's 529 plans, based on such things as performance and risk. A 1-Cap rating is the worst and 5-Cap is the best.

That four-year time horizon makes your asset allocation challenging. It requires you to look more at the investment markets and be willing to make investment choices that might go against popular logic.

For example, you would naturally consider an age-based portfolio option or bonds and cash as your most conservative options. However, with interest rates at record lows and the possibility that they will rise over the next four years, you would be investing in bonds at exactly the wrong time, because bond prices fall when interest rates go up.

And an age-based portfolio for an 18-year-old would be weighted heavily in bonds and cash. Given the real possibility that interest rates will rise, you might need to put more of your 529 plan into stocks to avoid the interest-rate risk in bonds.

You could place it in stable value funds, but your returns would be meager over that time horizon. Stocks, given all the volatility, have produced the best long-term total returns, but it requires taking a bit of risk.

If your daughter goes to a four-year college, you could continue to invest inside the 529 plan while she attends college, so presumably your time horizon is longer than just the four years she has until she begins college. In addition, many kids take a gap year after high school to travel and save money for college, which may give you an additional year to grow your investments.

John Gugle, NAPFA -registered financial adviser

Alpha Financial Advisors, Charlotte

Money Watch, a personal finance column that runs every Saturday, features a financial planner from the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors answering reader questions about saving, protecting and growing your money. To submit a question, e-mail USA TODAY personal finance reporter Christine Dugas at:

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