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Three essential financial steps for parents

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By Simona Covel
Adapted from the
Merrill Edge Minute e-newsletter.

Help pursue a more secure financial future for your children—read about this mom’s research and the moves she made.

When our son Colby was born, we received one monogrammed baby blanket, three hooded towels and countless words of wisdom about sleeping schedules. But no one mentioned the long-term financial implications of our happy event or how to budget for our growing family.

Most new parents realize that raising a child is expensive—latest government figures put the cost at around $233,610 for the first 18 years alone.1 But we wanted to give our son more than the necessities of food, clothing, health care and a roof over his head. We wanted to create a secure financial future for him and send him to college, and we didn’t have a clue where to begin.

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So I decided to do some digging and see what the experts had to say. Turns out there are three really important financial moves every new parent should consider. Devoting time to these three things during the first year of your baby’s life may be a challenge—especially when you’re sleep-deprived. But my husband and I are convinced that they were worth the effort. And we’re sleeping better knowing that we’ve taken steps to help protect our family.

Create a will and appoint a guardian

My own mortality was the last thing I was thinking about after bringing a new life into the world. I’m not alone: many people put off creating a will for just that reason, says Jean Kim-Wall, director, Strategic Wealth Advisory Group at Merrill Lynch, who has a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. But a will is crucial for parents of minor children because it allows you to name the person you trust to take care of your child if both you and your spouse should die.

While it was difficult for us to imagine not being here for our son, we quickly realized how important it was to have a will and especially to name a guardian. And not just any guardian—the right guardian. Someone who would be able to give the love and support we hope to provide. Someone who shares our values and could pass them on to him. Someone who could keep our memories alive. And someone we could trust to carry out our dream of pursuing a secure financial future for Colby. Picking a guardian for our son may be the most important parenting decision we’ve made so far.

Almost as important as naming a guardian is naming an executor—the person who wraps up your affairs, pays bills and expenses and makes sure your property is transferred to those named in your will. A will allows you to stipulate how your assets will be managed and used to see your child through to adulthood. More specifically, you can use a will to outline exactly how and at what stage of life your children can gain access to whatever money you may leave.

The terms of your will can be quite specific: money could be allocated for math tutoring or other enrichment activities, to cover the cost of traveling to visit grandparents or even to help the guardian with additional expenses associated with raising your children. But regardless of the details, Kim-Wall says, it’s important to start somewhere. “It’s easy to spend so much time trying to get each provision perfect that you become paralyzed,” she says. It’s best to get a basic version down on paper, and then revisit it every few years to address changes in circumstances.

Get your insurance in order

Next, it was time to consider life insurance. For the first time, we took a good, hard look at all that paperwork from the human resources departments where we work and saw that my husband’s employer offered $500,000 in coverage, while I had a little less.

Those amounts would probably cover only a few years of lost income, says James D. Gothers, director, Merrill Lynch Personal Wealth and Retirement. So we considered what our family would require in the long term to help minimize major disruptions to our lifestyle if one or both of us died. One tip: don’t underestimate the need to insure the spouse who has less income or stays at home. Child-care needs and other day-to-day rhythms change when a parent dies, straining the surviving spouse both financially and emotionally.

Also be sure to confirm that your health and disability coverage is adequate now that there’s a new member of the family.

Don’t postpone college planning

“When I’m fastening my son’s diapers, sending him off to college seems light-years away. But I can’t think of a better way to help secure his future than to give him a good education.”

three-essential-financial-steps-for-parents_covel_200x102.jpgThe author, Simona Covel and her son, Colby.

When I’m fastening my son’s diapers, sending him off to college seems light-years away. But I can’t think of a better way to help secure his future than to give him a good education. And I know we’d be foolish not to think about those costs now, given tuition’s steady march skyward. Sixteen or seventeen years from now, when my son packs his bags for the college campus of his choice, we could be facing a $300,000 to $400,000 bill.2

“Those numbers seem so daunting and unrealistic that many parents just do nothing,” says Richard J. Polimeni, director, Education Savings Programs at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Polimeni, who has two children in high school, suggests starting with a specific goal.

His family, for example, has set out to save and invest enough to cover four years of tuition and fees at an average-priced private school for each child. Once you have your goal established, you can then figure out what you need to put away each month to help you pursue it. Polimeni adds, “Even if I can only put aside a portion, that’s money I or my child won’t have to borrow down the road.”

So my husband and I set up a 529 college savings plan account and started making automatic monthly contributions, and we feel better now that we’ve taken that step.3 My son is now four years old, and my life has a more regular rhythm than it did during those frenzied early days and nights. We’re still adding new items to our financial checklist—like remembering to calculate the child-care credit come tax time. But with each planning item we address, I feel that we’ve done a little something more for our family. And that leaves us more mental energy to focus on our growing toddler—and all the possibilities that lie ahead for him.

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1 Source: United States Department of Agriculture, January 2017 report.

2 Source: Campus Consultants Inc. Projections based on cost for one year for the Fall 2029–Spring 2030 school year for a 4-year private (nonprofit) college, assuming annual increases of 7%. Cost includes tuition, fees, room and board.

3 No investment plan is risk free, and a systematic investment plan does not ensure profits or protect against losses in declining markets. A systematic investment plan involves continual investment in securities regardless of fluctuating prices. You should consider your financial ability to continue investing through periods of low price levels.

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