The things they never tell first-time parents

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Creating a secure financial future for your new baby is one of the most important things you can do — but few parents know where to begin. — By Simona Covel

Key points

  • Learn why it's important to create or update your will, name a guardian and describe how assets should be used to support your child
  • Think about how much insurance your family needs to keep going if one or both parents were to pass away
  • Start planning for college early, perhaps by setting up automatic monthly transfers to a 529 education savings account
  • Learn about investing for a child's education
When our son Colby was born, we received one monogrammed baby blanket, three hooded towels and countless words of wisdom about sleeping schedules. But no one mentioned the long-term financial implications of our happy event or how to budget for our growing family.
Most new parents realize that raising a child is expensive — latest government figures put the cost at $233,610 for the first 17 years alone, not including college tuition or inflation.Footnote 1 But we wanted to give our son more than the necessities of food, clothing, health care and a roof over his head. We wanted to create a secure financial future for him, and we didn't have a clue where to begin.
So, I decided to do some digging. Turns out there are three really important financial moves every new parent should consider. Devoting time to these three things during the first year of your baby's life may seem like a challenge — especially when you're sleep deprived. But having done them ourselves, my husband and I are convinced that they were worth the effort. And we're sleeping better knowing that we've taken steps to help protect our family.

1. Appoint a guardian and an executor

My own mortality was the last thing I was thinking about after bringing a new life into the world. Turns out, I'm not alone. Many people put off creating a will for just that reason, says Jean Kim-Wall, managing director, Strategic Wealth Advisory Group at Merrill, who has a five-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter. But a will is critical for parents of minor children because it allows you to name the person you trust to take care of your child if both you and your spouse should die.
While it was difficult for us to imagine not being here for our son, we quickly realized how important it was to have a will and especially to name a guardian. And not just any guardian — the right guardian. Someone who would be able to give the love and support we hope to provide. Someone who shares our values and could pass them on to him. Someone who could keep our memories alive. Picking a guardian for our son may have been the most important parenting decision we've made so far.
Almost as important as naming a guardian is naming an executor — the person who wraps up your affairs, pays bills and expenses and makes sure your property is transferred to those named in your will. A will (and a revocable trust, if appropriate) allows you to stipulate how your assets will be managed and used to see your child through to adulthood. More specifically, you can use your estate plan to outline exactly how your children can gain access to whatever money you may leave, and at what stage in life.
Designate your beneficiaries
When was the last time you reviewed your beneficiary designations? Check your retirement and brokerage accounts to be sure your beneficiaries are up-to-date.
The terms of your will can be quite specific: money could be allocated for private school, to cover the cost of flying to visit grandparents or even to help the guardian with additional expenses associated with raising your children. But regardless of the details, Kim-Wall says, it's important to start somewhere. "It's easy to spend so much time trying to get each provision perfect that you become paralyzed," she says. It's best to get a basic version down on paper and then revisit it every few years to address changes in circumstances. For more on wills and related documents, see the Estate Planning Checklist.

2. Get your insurance in order

Next, it was time to consider life insurance. For the first time, we took a good, hard look at all that paperwork from our employers' human resources departments and found that my husband's employer offered $500,000 in coverage, while I had a little less.
Those amounts would probably cover only a few years of lost income, says Amanda Ross, managing director, National Insurance Sales and Distribution Executive, Bank of America. So, we considered what our family would require in the long term to help minimize major disruptions to our lifestyle if one of us died. One tip: Don't underestimate the need to insure the spouse who has less income or stays at home. Child care needs and other day-to-day rhythms change when a parent dies, straining the surviving spouse both financially and emotionally.
When I was fastening my son's diapers, sending him off to college seemed light-years away. But I couldn't think of a better way to help secure his future than to give him a good education.
— Simona Covel

3. Don't postpone college planning

When I was fastening my son's diapers, sending him off to college seemed light-years away. But, I couldn't think of a better way to help secure his future than to give him a good education. And I knew we'd be foolish not to think about those costs, given tuition's steady march skyward. Years from now, when my son packs his bags for the college campus of his choice, we could be facing a bill of $300,000 to $400,000.Footnote 2
"Those numbers seem so daunting and unrealistic that a lot of people just do nothing," says Richard J. Polimeni, director, Education Savings Programs at Bank of America. Polimeni, who has two children, one a freshman in college and the other a junior in high school, suggests starting with a specific goal in mind.
His family, for example, has set out to save and invest enough to cover four years of tuition and fees at an average-priced private school for each child. Once you have your goal established, you can then figure out what you need to put away each month to help you pursue it. Polimeni adds, "Even if I can only put aside a portion, that's money I or my child won't have to borrow down the road," he notes. After my conversation with Polimeni, my husband and I set up a 529 education savings account and started making automatic monthly transfers, and we feel better having taken that step.Footnote 3 Because of the new tax bill, 529s now cover elementary and high school tuition up to $10,000 per year, in addition to college and graduate school costs. The SECURE Act, most of which took effect on Jan. 1, 2020, also expanded the definition of 529 qualified higher education expenses. Students who enroll in registered and certified apprenticeship programs — previously not considered qualified higher education expenses under 529 rules — may now use 529 plan distributions to cover qualified expenses such as books, supplies and equipment. Expanding the list of qualified education expenses for their children could help to preserve parents' ability to save and invest for their own retirement.Footnote 4
My son is now six years old, and I also have a two-year-old daughter named Ivy. Even with two children, my life has a more regular rhythm than it did during those frenzied early days and nights of first-time parenthood. We're still adding new items to our financial checklist every day, like remembering to calculate the childcare credit come tax time. But with each planning item we address, I feel that we've done a little something more for our family. And that leaves us more mental energy to focus on our growing children — and all the possibilities that lie ahead for them.
Next steps

Simona Covel is a financial writer and editor based in New York.

Footnote 1 U.S. Department of Agriculture, "The Cost of Raising a Child," January 2017.

Footnote 2 Campus Consultants Inc. Projections based on cost for 1 year for the Fall 2029-Spring 2030 school year for a 4-year private (nonprofit) college, assuming annual increases of 7%. Cost includes tuition, fees, room and board.

Footnote 3 No investment plan is risk free and a systematic investment plan does not ensure profits or protect against losses in declining markets. A systematic investment plan involves continual investment in securities regardless of fluctuating prices. You should consider your financial ability to continue investing through periods of low price levels.

Footnote 4 Withdrawals from 529 plans are federally tax-free when used for qualified higher education expenses, including tuition and fees, room and board, books, required supplies and equipment, computers or peripheral equipment, computer software or Internet access and related services. Other acceptable expenses include payments for special needs beneficiaries at any accredited school, including public or private universities, graduate schools, community colleges, and accredited vocational and technical schools. You can also take a federally tax-free distribution from a 529 of up to $10,000 per calendar year per beneficiary to help pay for tuition at an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school. State tax treatment may vary. For distributions taken after Dec. 31, 2019, qualified higher expenses now include expenses for fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for the participation of a designated beneficiary in a registered and certified apprenticeship program and payment of student loans up to a lifetime maximum of $10,000 for a designated beneficiary or a sibling of the designated beneficiary (the lifetime maximum is applied separately for the sibling's loans versus the designated ‎beneficiary's loans).

Bank of America Merrill Lynch is a marketing name for the Retirement Services business of Bank of America Corporation.

The case studies presented are hypothetical and do not reflect specific strategies we may have developed for actual clients. They are for illustrative purposes only and intended to demonstrate the capabilities of Merrill Lynch and/or Bank of America. They are not intended to serve as investment advice since the availability and effectiveness of any strategy is dependent upon your individual facts and circumstances. Results will vary, and no suggestion is made about how any specific solution or strategy performed in reality.