Financial stress ranked No. 1 on the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey this year. It has held this position every year since 2007 when the survey began.

It’s natural for parents to want to shield their children from some of this stress by investing money toward their future. However, the best strategies for investing in your child’s future might seem unclear. 

When should you get started? 

What are the best investment accounts?

What are the best investment vehicles?

How much should you save? 

Undoubtedly, these questions pose serious concerns for parents looking to help their children overcome financial stress.

Read: This is the most innovative financial literacy program in the U.S.

Before you start

When it comes to investing, the rule is usually that the sooner you invest, the better. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should start investing for your child the day they are born.

Before pursuing investing for kids, you should have emergency savings set aside and confidence in your retirement funds. 

In retirement, you absolutely need to have affordable housing, food and other necessities. If you can’t, it will be a burden to you as well as your child. It’s similar to how you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist someone else.

Help yourself first and then you’ll find yourself in a better position to aid others. 

Paying for your child’s college or getting them started saving for retirement is ideal, but not as high of a priority. Get yourself to a place where you can “max out” your 401(k), especially if you work for a company that matches part of your contributions.

Financial advisers commonly say once you’re able to contribute 15% of your income toward retirement, that’s when you should start investing for your child. 

This percentage might vary depending on your investment history. If you’ve worked toward your retirement since a teenager and have already saved a significant amount, this percentage might be lower. People who got a late start saving for retirement and want to catch up may need a higher percentage. 

Read: 5 investment lessons that can make your working teen wealthy

Invest for your child’s education account (529 Plan)

When you start to invest for your child’s future, begin with a tax-advantaged savings account. A 529 savings account acts as one of your best options.

These plans can cover expenses related to K-12 tuition if you plan to send your child to a private school, cover college tuition costs and even other vocational education options. 

These accounts accumulate funds on an after-tax basis with gains untaxed if used for qualified higher education expenses.

You don’t need to use the money at any one specific college, but can use it at any of the nationwide qualified colleges.

A 529 college savings plan works similarly to a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA in that you invest your post-tax contributions in mutual funds, target-date funds or other investments. 

Once your child begins college, money from the account can go toward eligible expenses, typically including tuition, computers, books, supplies, and housing (if the student enrolls at least half-time).

Room and board can’t exceed the “cost of attendance” figures colleges provide. Distributions can also go toward repaying federal and private student loans, including ones you refinance.

If you withdraw money for nonqualified expenses, the earnings portion becomes subject to ordinary income taxes as well as a 10% tax penalty. You can waive this penalty if the beneficiary attends a U.S. Military Academy, earns a tax-free scholarship, dies, or becomes disabled. The earnings would still be subject to tax, however. 

Suppose your child doesn’t attend college. In that situation, you can switch the beneficiary to another qualifying family member, have yourself become the beneficiary and further your own education, use it for K-12 tuition (up to $10,000), or use the money to repay student loans (up to $10,000). 

Funds can also roll over to a 529 ABLE account, which acts as a savings account for people with disabilities. If you have a willingness to pay the penalty and taxes, you can always withdraw your money for any reason.

Plans usually have minimum initial contribution requirements. After that, you can make automatic money deposits, contribute lump sums, or both.

Read: Why you should plan to leave money to your kids

Invest for your child’s future retirement

Helping your child start to save for retirement can put them at a significant advantage later in life.

If your teenager has a job like a lifeguard, fast food worker or cashier, you can open a custodial IRA in their name and invest.

A custodial account is a financial account maintained by an adult for another person, such as your child. 

You would manage your teenager’s account until they reach the age of majority, which is either 18 or 21, depending on your state. These accounts transfer ownership and you can set them up to manage their own investments.

With the custodial IRA, you can open a traditional or Roth IRA. In either account type, select the best investments and watch the returns compound over time.

Opening and contributing to a child’s custodial IRA requires them to earn taxable income. Sadly, allowances don’t count and you can’t contribute more than what they make each year.

Keep in mind that even if contributions don’t seem large, contributing regularly over long enough periods can result in a significant impact to their bottom line. These contributions add up and grow through returns earned over time.

Because your child likely falls in a low tax bracket on their earnings, it usually makes sense to open a custodial Roth IRA to lock in low tax rates now and have their contributions grow tax-free for many decades to come.

Invest for your child’s future expenses

You can also save for your child’s future expenses without a specific plan for how those funds should be used. Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts and Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) accounts are two beneficial types of custodial accounts that let teenagers invest.

UTMA and UGMA accounts come controlled by the custodian until the minor reaches the age of majority in their state of residence. 

Unearned investment income in these accounts has the tax advantage of only facing taxes at the child’s rate. For example, a child under age 19 wouldn’t pay taxes on the first $1,100 and only 10% for the next $1,100. After that, money falls under the guardian’s marginal tax rate. 

With these accounts, you don’t have to limit your contributions to the amount of money your child makes. No contribution limits exist, though anything over $15,000 each year (or $30,000 for a married couple) requires minding the federal gift tax rules.

Best investment in your child’s future

Having money doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skills for handling it. Therefore, it remains essential that you help your child develop good money habits and financial literacy so they know how to save and manage money.

This can mean controlling money from an early age to build comfort with money decisions, learning how to manage it with a piggy bank and eventually a bank account and debit card for kids, and eventually how to invest money on their own.

Make sure your child understands topics such as compound interest, investment diversification, and tax-advantaged savings vehicles. You can impart your personal knowledge, buy them financial literacy books, and encourage them to take financial courses in school.

However, nothing comes as useful as giving them some control over their money. They will make mistakes, but that will always represent an important part of learning. Invest in their future by giving teens and young adults the tools they need to succeed.

Riley Adams is a CPA and the author of the Young and the Invested website, which focuses on financial independence and investing.

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