Ariah Amerson, 3, loves playing with photocopies of her family members' checks for her 529 plan, a tax-advantaged college investment account. She keeps the slips in her toy cash register.
When her mom, Johnel Amerson, plays grocery store with her, Ariah uses the slips as grocery coupons.
Ariah is learning how these savings "'pons" will help her pay for college when she's older. Playing grocery store with the check copies is a way for the Ohio mom to show Ariah the value of the savings slips.
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Her 9-year-old brother, Amario Amerson, is shown his 529 plan balance and the cost of tuition. Amerson and her husband Bernardo use online tuition calculators to illustrate the cost of college for him. They tell him that if he works hard, any 529 plan money that is contributed on his behalf will be there to help with college costs.
The couple received scholarships to pay for college, and say they'd rather their children didn't have a lot of college debt after graduation.
It can be hard for kids, especially young ones, to understand why college savings are important. But there are all sorts of fun ways – like the Amersons' cash register – to help children understand why some of their birthday money is getting put away for an event that may be over a decade in the future.
Patricia Roberts, a New York City mom who volunteers as the corporate affiliate committee chairwoman of the College Savings Plans Network, illustrates college savings in a variety of ways for her 14-year-old son Ben. Ben is past the age when he needs a toy to show him how saving works, but he does need to see how small amounts can grow into much larger ones.
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When Patricia, Ben and her husband Anthony come home, they drop their coins – left over from purchases at the convenience store or lunch, for example — in clear containers for goals varying from a skateboard to a family vacation.
Since smaller goals are achieved quickly, Ben is able to visualize how little bits of change add up. Reaching small goals builds enthusiasm for the larger goals, like paying for college with coins that go into the "Coins for College" container, she says.
In addition to visualizing how money adds up, Roberts feels it's also important for her son to picture his life after college – as well as the education it will take to accomplish it.
The family regularly discusses Ben's career interests and uses tools such as Rhode Island's student-focused career and education planning website waytogori.org to translate interests into careers through the available surveys and tools.
The tools help match interests to clusters of careers. She then shows her son the education needed for those careers and the costs of those programs.
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Both Roberts and her husband had to borrow student loans to pay for college and want their son to be able to avoid taking on a lot of debt. The couple also shows Ben his quarterly 529 plan statements so he can see the total amount saved.
Ohio's CollegeAdvantage 529 savings plan offers certificates that parents can use to help children see and understand college savings gifts, but parents shouldn't stop there when it comes to visualizing and explaining college savings, says Paul Paeglis, executive director of the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority. He feels it's important to families to find additional ways to make the connection between money saved for college and the child's future.
Visualizing college savings is an ongoing process for families. "In age-appropriate ways, we have talked to Ben about career goals and the costs to pursue them," mom Roberts says. "This ties the saving process to tangible goals that can be envisioned."
Trying to save for college? Get tips and more in the U.S. News College Savings 101 center.