Saving for college? These 6 mistakes can cost you

Kathryn FlynnBy: Kathryn Flynn | 
View as:  Full Article | Pages

1. Your goal is too vague

The best time to start saving for college is as early as possible, but most families have no idea where their newborn baby will attend college in 18 years. Because of this, parents often start a college fund with modest contributions of $25-100 a month – with no clear end goal in mind.

While this is a great way to get into the habit of saving, at some point parents need to focus on establishing a more solid plan. That doesn’t mean you need to decide on a particular school just yet, but maybe it’s time to think about how much you want to (and can afford to) pay for. That could mean planning to cover tuition for public or private, or 2-year or 4-year college, or simply giving a specific dollar amount.

Another common mistake parents make is shying away from saving because of sticker shock. If the total cost of a school seems out of reach, don’t worry! After grants and scholarships, families rarely end up paying the “sticker” price of colleges. A more realistic goal is to aim to save 25%, and find other sources to make up the difference. What’s more, saving too much can cost you if you end up having to take a non-qualified withdrawal from a 529 plan. When the money you take from your 529 plan is used for something other than qualified higher education expenses you’ll lose your tax benefits and also get stuck paying a 10% penalty on the earnings portion of the withdrawal.

RELATED: The magic number for college savings

Kathryn Flynn

Kathryn Flynn

Content Director
Kathryn is Content Director at She has been quoted in financial publications including the Wall Street Journal, the NY Times, Fortune, Money and GOBankingRates, and has been an expert guest on personal finance podcasts. Prior to, Kathryn worked in product marketing at Henderson Global Investors (now Janus Henderson Investors), a global asset manager. She earned her MBA with Finance Concentration from DePaul University's Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, and has prior FINRA Series 7 and 63 licenses. Kathryn has 529 college savings plans for each of her three children, and enjoys creating content to help other families prepare for future higher education costs.