7 ways to avoid student loan debt

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Paying for college doesn't have to break your budget. These common saving and investing strategies can help.
Most parents know how important a college education is in today's economy. According to a recent Sallie Mae report, 90% of parents believe college is a good investment in their children's future, and more than eight out of 10 said they are willing to stretch themselves financially in order to give their children the best opportunities.Footnote 1
Still, college requires a hefty investment for most families. According to the nonprofit College Board, the average cost for a single year at a four-year public college or university in the U.S. for 2018-2019 is $21,370. For students attending an out-of-state public college, that figure jumps to $37,430. For a private college, it's $48,510.Footnote 2
These eye-opening costs have caused parents to take a fresh look at the strategies they use to help pay college bills, says Richard Polimeni, director, Education Savings Programs, Bank of America.
"The reality of college costs is a major concern for most parents," he explains. "But it's also a great motivator because they want their children's lives to be better — and free from the kind of college debt they themselves had to take on and, in many cases, are still paying off. Parents are planning and saving now to make that happen."
Polimeni outlines some of the key college savings and investing tactics trending with parents today.

1. Starting early

"A few years ago, the average age of a beneficiary for a new 529 account was around 9 or 10 years old," says Polimeni. "Today, it's closer to 5 or 6 years old." Starting to learn about how to save or invest earlier allows parents to take advantage of more years of potential growth through compound earnings over time.

2. Save more, borrow less

Young parents who have only recently finished paying off their own college loans have a strong desire to save more and borrow less when financing their children's college education: 90% of parents who had college debt said it had made them consider other strategies for their children.Footnote 3
Simply increasing savings has been the No. 1 way of saving for college for the last five years of the State of College Savings survey. "We are encouraged to see that parents are avidly saving and are motivated to avoid taking on debt for themselves and their children," says Polimeni, who is also chair of the College Savings Foundation.

3. Set a realistic savings target

Parents are becoming more realistic about the amount of college costs they are willing to take on without jeopardizing their other priorities, including retirement savings, Polimeni says.
"We see a definite change from parents feeling that they have to finance 100% of college costs to realizing that there are a variety of other funding sources and strategies they can use in their saving efforts," he notes. "The objective should be to set a realistic goal that is achievable."

4. Take advantage of 529 benefits

The use of 529 plans for college investing is increasing, says Polimeni, because of their potentially significant tax and estate planning advantages and beneficiary flexibility.
Generally, 529 education savings plans offer the potential for tax-free growth, and the earnings potential of any withdrawal is federal (and possibly state and/or local) income tax-free if used for qualified higher education expenses. Although 529 plan contributions cannot be deducted from federal income taxes, some 529 plans offer residents a state income tax deduction for contributions to the in-state plan. There are also a few states that offer a state tax deduction for contributions made to any 529 plan, not just the in-state plan.
Additionally, you can take a 529 plan distribution, federally tax-free, 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.

Growth in the use of Section 529 plans

As college costs have increased, more people are utilizing education savings plans. The chart below shows the rise in 529 plan assets over the past several years.
Graphic showing growth in the use of Section 529 education savings plans totaling $311 billion in 2018.
Source: Strategic Insights, "529 Plans Grow Amidst Market Volatility," December 2018.
Another advantage: 529 plans give the account owner the flexibility of changing beneficiaries potentially without income tax consequences if the original beneficiary chooses not to go to college.
To understand your college investing choices and decide if a 529 plan is right for you, see our plan comparison chart.

5. Use bonuses, tax refunds and other windfalls

Today's college savers are also looking to a variety of funding sources, including bonuses, tax refunds, earnings from hobbies and inherited money, to fill the college funding gap before they resort to taking out loans.
Parents whose children are "graduating" from day care to public elementary school have been using another great option, says Polimeni. "They take the money they have been putting aside every month for day care and redirect it into a 529 education savings plan."
Parents take the money they have been putting aside every month for day care and redirect it into a 529 education savings plan.
— Richard Polimeni,
Director, Education Savings Programs,
Bank of America
"When you find yourself in a situation where you suddenly have extra money every month that you're used to spending, it also can be helpful to set up a recurring automatic draft from your checking account to your 529 education savings plan account so you're not tempted to spend it on something else," says Polimeni.

6. Get a little help from friends and relatives

More than half of the parents (58%) surveyed by the College Savings Foundation said they would ask family or friends for college savings contributions in place of material gifts.
The number of grandparents who are helping to pay for a grandchild's education through payment of tuition directly to the college or contributions to 529 plans is also increasing, Polimeni says. This strategy also can be beneficial for the grandparent's estate and gift tax liabilities. Learn more about investing gift options and limits at "Using 529 plans to invest for college and transfer wealth."

7. Share costs with your children

Increasingly, parents are asking their children to take on a portion of the college costs — and today's high school students are willing to do so. The vast majority (86%) of students polled by the College Savings Foundation in 2018 plan to contribute to college costs.Footnote 4

High school students plan to pay for some college costs

Students aren't expecting their parents to shoulder college costs alone: The majority of students think they bear some responsibility for funding their education.
Pie chart showing the percentage of students who plan to contribute to college costs, totaling 86%.
Source: College Savings Foundation, "How Youth Plan to Fund College 2018," June 2018.
"As they look at alternatives to take care of this big-ticket item, parents are getting their children involved in the conversation," says Polimeni. Often that means setting a dollar amount they can afford and then working with their child to find ways to supplement it, such as via work-study options, part-time work, grants, scholarships, financial aid and student loans (which Polimeni says should be used only as a last resort).
Of all the latest trends in college savings, perhaps the most important is to get started as soon as you can. Even if you can only save a small amount, every bit helps. "Every dollar saved is one more dollar that you won't have to come up with — or borrow — later," Polimeni says.
Next steps

Footnote 1 Sallie Mae, "How America Saves for College 2018," 2018.

Footnote 2 College Board, "Trends in College Pricing," 2018.

Footnote 3 College Savings Foundation, "2017 Parents Survey: Have 529 College Savings Plans Come of Age?," 2017.

Footnote 4 College Savings Foundation, "How Youth Plan to Fund College 2018," June 2018.

Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of the principal value invested.

This information should not be construed as investment advice. It is presented for information purposes only and is not intended to be either a specific offer by any Bank of America Corporation entity to sell or provide, or a specific invitation for a consumer to apply for, any particular retail financial product or service that may be available through the Bank of America Corporation family of companies.

Merrill, its affiliates, and financial advisors do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.