Everyone in my life is having kids. And, as the fee-only financial planner in my community, I’ve frequently been asked: “How do I set up a 529 college savings account?”
It’s a good question. But, as another adviser used to say, “it’s the wrong question.” While opening a 529 college savings account is usually a good idea, it’s very low on the list of financial planning priorities. Why ins’t a 529 college savings account a big deal?
Without a 529, attending college is still possible via either student loans and/or work-study programs. Moreover, there is even the chance that higher education might be free in the future, or that your client’s child determines that college isn’t right for them. Either way, not having a 529 doesn’t mean a catastrophic life event for you client.
I’m not saying don’t create a 529 account. I’m just saying that a client’s attention, energy and time are extremely limited—especially if they’re a new parent. So, if a client only has so much time in his/her hectic schedule, focus on the financial planning moves that will make the biggest impact.
What Planners Need to Emphasize for New Parents
A Will. While having a conversation with a client about their own mortality may not be easy, our profession knows that this subject is very important. Parents of minor children definitely need a will. In the will, it is critical to designate the names of the godparents in the instance that both clients pass simultaneously in an untimely manner.
To illustrate the importance of a will, consider a worst-case scenario: Without a 529 account, a client’s child may have to resort to student loans to finance his/her education. Without a will, a client’s child may end up in a state-run orphanage. Of those two scenarios, which single issue is most dramatic—and which issue should receive the highest priority in terms of prevention as you advise new-parent clients?
Life insurance. You likely don’t need me to convince you that life insurance is important for new parents. The point here is that term-life insurance is infinitely more important than funding a 529 college savings plan. Household breadwinners need to designate their spouse as primary beneficiary with godparents (outlined in the will) designated as the contingent beneficiary.
Illustrating a worse-case scenario to your client is the best way to effectively communicate the value of prioritizing life insurance over college funding: it’s more important that a client’s child has food on the table, clothes on his/her back and shelter over his/her head for ages up to approximately 18, rather than money for college.
Disability Insurance. In the context of financial planning moves for new parents, a disability insurance policy plays a pretty similar role as life insurance: providing money to fund a child’s lifestyle when your client (the parent) is no longer able to do so. For this reason, it’s much more important than a 529 plan, with a disability insurance policy providing money for food, clothes and shelter.
Prioritize Financial Planning Needs for New Clients
So, while having a college savings account is certainly a “nice-to-have,” it’s not a make-or-break financial planning move. A 529 college savings account is simply not that important. What is very important for parents (or prospective parents) are a will, life insurance and disability insurance. Address those three items FIRST, and then work with clients to open up a 529 college savings account.
Fee-only Financial Planner and Fiduciary
San Diego, Calif.
Editor’s note: Find more of Luskin’s blogs about personal financial planning for employees of Deloitte at UncleDmoney.com.