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Smart — and surprising — ways to pay for your children’s education

Saving for college is a top priority for Hispanic-Latino Americans — and a financial stress for many parents. Consider these creative ways to save for your kids’ college.


By Sandy M. Fernández


DURING A RECENT DINNER WITH FRIENDS, we were talking about our childhood educational experiences, and I shared that I had attended a private all-girls high school. I’ll always be grateful to my parents for that opportunity. They moved to the United States from Nicaragua during the country’s civil war and struggled to build a new life for themselves. But despite their hardships, they never lost sight of the power of education.


It’s a bedrock belief that most Hispanic-Latinos share and helps to explain why my family, new to the U.S., clipped coupons, shopped at yard sales and chose to put the money they did have into sending their kids to better schools. In fact, a study by Merrill, “Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Hispanic-Latino Community,” found that affluent Hispanic-Latinos largely share the belief that a traditional higher education is essential, not just for career success, but also as an important marker of community achievement.1 That may be part of the reason that the percentage of Hispanic-Latino Americans ages 25–29 who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree more than doubled from 2000 to 2021.2


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You don’t have to figure everything out right away. Getting started is more important than waiting to craft the perfect plan.

The Merrill study also found that Hispanic-Latino families cite paying for their children’s college education as one of their top financial stresses. That’s not surprising, when you consider the nearly three-fold increase in tuition at four-year institutions between 1980 and 2021.3 Fortunately, there are things we all can do to prepare, even when we’re balancing our desire to support our children’s educational journey with other family priorities — all at the same time.


Juggling college and other big family goals

1. Start early. “You don’t have to figure everything out right away,” says Sandy Liotta, a managing director and wealth management advisor at Merrill. “I tell my clients that getting started is so much more important than waiting to craft the perfect plan.”


“For my clients, what’s stressful isn’t so much providing for their children’s education; it's not being sure how best to do it,” notes Merrill senior vice president and wealth management advisor Chris Piña. Piña took one of his clients, an engineer originally from South America, through various options to consider — from 529 education savings plans and trusts to Roth IRAs and more — as the client planned for his three sons’ education, beginning when they were small children.


Starting early proved to be a plus when the client’s wife passed away and their financial picture changed. Complicating matters were financial commitments to extended family members abroad. Still, Piña was able to help his client adjust his plan for the boys’ education by factoring in how much he anticipated in future college costs, creating an approach to save for college through 529 plans and setting up a strategic asset allocation portfolio that rebalanced periodically to stay aligned with his investment objectives, risk tolerance and time horizon. Ultimately, with Piña’s help, the client was able to stay on track with all his priorities, including retiring at 65.


2. Look for tax advantages. One benefit of starting early is that you can leverage the power of compound interest as your savings and investments have the potential to grow. And when you use a 529 education savings plan, you get the added benefit of tax-free growth, tax-free withdrawals and, in some cases, tax-deductible contributions, says Liotta, who believes 529s are one of “the best long-term educational savings vehicles.” Grandparents can also open a 529 plan for grandchildren without affecting the student’s eligibility for need-based aid until after the first funds are withdrawn. For those looking for tax advantages, a Roth IRA also offers the potential for penalty- and tax-free withdrawals for qualified higher education purposes, as long as certain requirements are met, she notes.


You may be familiar with Roth IRAs as a savings vehicle for retirement, but they can be used to cover qualified college costs, and you can help your child open one in their name as soon as they start earning income.

3. Empower your children so they can help, too. “There are parents who say, ‘I want to give my kids everything,’ but in the Hispanic-Latino community, I think it’s more common for us to say, ‘I want my child to be a productive member of society,’” says Pina. This is where a custodial Roth IRA can help. You may be more familiar with Roth IRAs as a savings vehicle for retirement, he says, “but they can be used to cover qualified college costs, and you can help your child open one in their name as soon as they start earning income, perhaps from a summer gig or after-school job.” Just be mindful that contributions can’t exceed the child’s total taxable compensation. To help you determine how much to contribute, review the current annual contribution limits. Generally, taxable amounts withdrawn from a Roth IRA are subject to an additional federal 10% tax if taken before age 59½, unless an exception, such as a withdrawal for qualified higher education expenses, applies. One other bonus of Roth IRAs is that they don’t have to be reported as assets when your child fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — so these funds won’t affect their aid eligibility until they’re withdrawn.


4. Review your progress annually. As father to three kids of varied ages, Hector Gonzalez, a senior vice president and international wealth advisor at Merrill, began planning for college costs early on, but “there are so many variables that you can’t control. Right now, for instance, I have no idea where my kids are going to enroll.” Just as with other aspects of your financial plan, Gonzalez says, “because market conditions and life circumstances change, your approach to saving for college needs to regularly be reassessed and recalibrated.”  


“This is an annual discussion,” adds Piña. “You may want to make small adjustments, as your children’s college plans firm up. And as they get closer to college, you won't want as much risk in the portfolio because you're going to need that money soon.”


Your approach to saving for college needs to regularly be reassessed and recalibrated, preferably annually.

5. Think creatively to fill the savings gap. Planning won’t necessarily mean having every single penny when tuition comes due. It should mean knowing roughly how much you might need, what percentage you’ll have saved, and where the rest could potentially come from. Of course, loans play a role even for many affluent parents, and you can consult with your advisor on which options might be best for your situation, whether a personal loan, a home equity line of credit or a loan against your investments, such as a Loan Management Account® (LMA® account), offered by Bank of America. But think beyond that.


While private colleges and universities come with hefty tuitions, many state schools offer in-state students an excellent education at a fraction of the price. Another way to potentially save is if your child can accumulate enough credits to graduate a semester early. Scholarships, while they often come in smaller dollar amounts, can add up as well.


 And community colleges are another option. When we emigrated to the U.S., my mother’s first move was to enroll in one. There, she could learn shorthand and computer skills that would get her a better job, so that she and my father, an economist, could rebuild their lives in a new country. By the time I was ready for college, it wasn’t a question of “if” — just “where” and “how.”


“Our community has a great sense of family — and that means you help your parents, and if you're a parent, you help your child,” sums up Liotta. “We recognize the importance of education to our children’s success, and helping them succeed is worth any individual sacrifice.”



Sandy M. Fernández is an award-winning journalist who has written for Time, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other publications.

This article features third-party individuals not affiliated with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated ("Merrill") and is for information and educational purposes only. The opinions and views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Merrill or any of its affiliates.


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1 Merrill, “Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Hispanic-Latino Community,” 2021.

2 National Center for Education Statistics, Percentage of persons 25 to 29 years old with selected levels of educational attainment, by race/ethnicity and sex: Selected years, 1920 through 2021,” October 2021.

3 National Center for Education Statistics, “Average undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level and control of institution: Selected years, 1963–64 through 2020–21,” January 2022.


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