5 experts share favorite college savings tips

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Saving For College Education

​The vast majority of American families think a college education is important, but only about half are actually saving money to pay for it, according to a recent study by student loan lender Sallie Mae and market research firm Ipsos.

The study found that 48 percent of families with children under 18 are saving for college, down from a high of 62 percent in 2009.

Of those families saving for college, half are using general savings accounts and could be missing out on the benefits of using other savings vehicles, such as 529 plans, which offer tax benefits and potentially higher yields, according to the study.

To make the daunting task of saving for college more manageable, five experts offered U.S. News & World Report their favorite tips. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

"The ultimate goal is to make sure you have the money for your child to go to the school of his or her choice as much as possible," says Mary Ryan, a financial planner for investment management firm The Vanguard Group.​ "I think that is really important."

Mary Ryan, certified financial planner and advisor with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services​

Start early and be consistent: The major takeaway I would like to suggest is to start early, and to be consistent in your savings. One can even start saving for college even before a child is born.

Look to see what you can save on a weekly or monthly basis, but make sure to stay with it. Increase it if you can, but don't decrease it. Stay with it.

Be clear with yourself of how you're going to react when the markets go down, because they will. I promise you that. What are you going to do at that point?

Know your risk tolerance and be very clear about it. How much do you want to have in stocks and how much do you want to have in bonds?

Deborah Fox, a San Diego-based financial advisor and founder of Fox College Funding​

Set up automatic withdrawals: The truth is, everyone can always find an excuse to put off saving for college.

For discipline, set up an automatic monthly deduction from your checking account and increase the amount you are contributing each year. Better yet, some employers offer the ability to contribute to a 529 college savings plan through payroll deduction. The concept of "out of sight, out of mind" will serve you well in helping you achieve your college saving goal.

Maureen Baxter, advanced planning consultant for Commonwealth Financial Network

Get help from grandparents: Opening a 529 plan for a child at birth is a terrific vehicle for gifts during the planning years to help with the college education.

Grandparents in the past may have purchased savings bonds, but with lower interest rates these may be less attractive. Cash gifts to the 529 plan can qualify as annual exclusion gifts, which in 2015 is $14,000 per beneficiary. If they are married they can split the gift and double the contribution to $28,000 for that year.

Do not plan to use your retirement accounts for college expenses. These are savings that will be needed to meet your retirement needs. There are other avenues to save or fund an education that are more efficient and will not jeopardize your retirement security.

Joseph Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com

Open a 529 college savings account: Open a 529 account with $25 per month even when your retirement savings take priority.

This way you will at least have made a start towards college savings and every quarterly statement will remind you of the opportunity to increase your 529 contributions.

Well-paid investment experts have determined the optimal combination of risk and reward in your college savings account based on the age of your child. If you instead decide to choose a "static" investment option, be sure you have sound reasons for doing so.

Paul Curley, director of college savings research for mutual fund research and consulting firm Strategic Insight

Save 10 percent of your income and earmark some of that for college: There's some impressive statistics about families basically saving for retirement and then under-saving for college. What ends up happening is people are taking unqualified distributions from their retirement product and in turn negatively impacting their college savings goal, or negatively impacting the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) equation.

Broadly speaking, people aren't saving, and people aren't saving for the right goals. Once they start saving for the right goals, then they're not choosing the right vehicle.

At the very top of the pyramid, finding a way for families to save 10 percent of their income will make a difference.

Trying to save for college? Get tips and more in the U.S. News College Savings 101 center.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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