Ask the grumpies: How to save for multiple kids’ 529s?

First Gen American asks:

Once our mortgage is done again, we’ll swap that out with a 529 auto deposit option that comes out of both paychecks….which brings me to another question…Should we funnel a ton now into older kid and worry about younger kid later (he’s 4 years younger) or should we fund both at the same time now? I’m assuming we can roll over older kid’s excess into younger kid if we over deposit but then if we die before kids do, an uneven distribution would screw things up for kid 2. Not sure what to do yet.

I have also spent some time thinking about this.  I am not sure it actually matters that much.

Yes, if you have too much money for kid #1, you can easily transfer the leftover amount to the second child.  (An added wrinkle–if you undersave for DC1, will you take from DC2’s account?  You can, but would you be willing to?)

A quick check on the internet suggests that the 529 does not automatically go to the child who is named on its behalf– you can name a beneficiary.  It is also something that you can talk about with an attorney for a trust if you do not have a successor that you trust not to just liquidate it at a loss.

We have target-date accounts for our children in their 529s, so it makes sense in terms of risk to fund them separately.  That means DC1’s account has less risk in it right now (a larger bond to stock ratio) than DC2’s does because DC1 is closer to college.  But I’m thinking of them as separate buckets and we’re aiming to fully fund 4 years at a private school given that we’re not expecting much financial aid.

If you’re not thinking of them as separate buckets, then you might want to think of it as if you are going to “retire” and you know you’re going to be alive for 8 years after “retirement” and then suddenly “die” (if you’re planning on funding post-college education, or your DCs might take more than 4 years to graduate, then you might want to add some years to that).  What kind of investment portfolio would be optimal in that scenario?  It’s going to depend on your risk aversion, but you probably could pick a single fund that would fit your risk preferences given that scenario.

In terms of how we’re funding, I don’t actually think that our method of putting in $X/month to each child’s fund is necessarily optimal.  It would make better sense while we have excess cash to put in lump sums right now and stop contributing later (allowing for more tax preferred earnings).  But $X/month/kid is predictable and is easy to fiddle with should our situation change.

The important thing that gets brought up in the comments when we talk about this kind of situation is the perceived fairness of the situation by the kids.  Pick some rule that seems fair for both kids and stick to it.  If you have to make adjustments, make sure that you adjust for the other kid as well.  For us, we’ve decided that fully funding tuition without loans is what we consider fair, so we will be ignoring the actual costs and financial aid for the schools.  Our kids will get college paid for by us no matter what college they choose.  Other people choose a specific dollar amount (though I hope they adjust it for inflation!), or may have a rule like, “we will pay up to the cost of state school X”.  What you don’t want to do is pay full freight for one kid and force the other to take out loans for the full amount because that can lead to them writing about how you don’t love them on money forums, and nobody wants that.

Grumpeteers– How do you think First Gen should save for two kids’ college?