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The 4 money accounts all parents should have (and how to set them up in under 30 minutes)

How to save money even if you think you can't start a savings account right now.

family financial planning

Being a parent is challenging as it is, let alone finding time to discuss your long-term money goals and what financial accounts will help you along the way. Does it make sense to start a college savings fund for your newborn? Is a "fun fund" even realistic as a mother of three? Short answer: Yes, but it's important to know where to start, what your family's financial goals are, and what actionable steps (baby steps included) you can take now.

As a certified financial planner, I work with people at all stages of their financial lives, and something we frequently discuss is how to start saving money using specific financial accounts.

Here's what I tell my family financial planning clients about the accounts all parents need, and why.

First things first, start by assessing your current financial situation.

This doesn't need to be super complicated: Make a list of your income and expenses (hello, budget), any debts you may have and your total financial assets and accounts. It also helps to start with an understanding of your credit score. If pulling all this together feels hard, use a personal finance app like Turbo, which shows you these numbers in one place. This is a great way to get a holistic snapshot of where you stand.

Second, outline your financial priorities.

These will indicate which financial accounts to hone in on. For growing families, I recommend focusing on these priorities:

  • Emergency fund
  • Retirement savings
  • College savings for your children's education
  • A 'fun fund,' where you can stow away funds for vacations or nice-to-haves

Emergency fund

Priority number one is building out an emergency fund for you and your family. This cash cushion is a critical first layer of your financial foundation as it'll be where you source funds should you experience an unforeseen circumstance, such as medical bills or unexpected home costs.

Typically, you want a cash cushion of about 3-6 months of your committed monthly expenses (your rent or mortgage, preschool tuition, insurance, bills, and so on) so you know that your family will be secure for a few months at least.

Not sure where to start? Apps and online calculators can help you figure out how to reach your emergency fund goals one paycheck at a time. Mint's savings goal feature, for example, lets you set a specific amount for your goal, a timeframe in which you want to achieve the goal, and then determines how much you need to save every month to achieve the goal.

It's best to have some sort of high-yield savings account where you can stow away this money—that way it'll be out of sight and you'll be less likely to see this money as disposable income, plus you'll be making interest on the money you deposit. Even better, set up automated savings to funnel money from your paycheck into this account, helping it to consistently grow.

401K or IRA for retirement savings

If you don't have one already in place, it's important to have a retirement account set up as this will serve as your cash flow for later in life. Often, employers offer 401k plans that you can open and make contributions to—employers typically have a system in place to contribute to your accounts as well (some may even match your personal contributions).

You can decide how much to contribute depending on your situation, but as a rule of thumb, and if your employer offers a contribution program, try to personally contribute at least the amount required to receive your employer's full match. For example, if your employer matches 100% of the first 6% you contribute, then aim to contribute the full 6% into your account.

If you don't have a 401k at work or you're self employed, consider an IRA or SEP IRA, Simple IRA or Solo 401k. In these instances, it's smart to work with a CFP to determine the right retirement account for you, based on your employment status, retirement goals and budget.

529 or other college savings plans

Though not critical, kickstarting an education savings fund for your children early can be a helpful way to ease into the cost of college. A 529 college savings fund is a good example, which is a state-sponsored savings plan that allows parents (and their children) to invest money tax-free towards educational expenses. You can invest in any state's 529 plan, however some states offer tax deductions based off of contributions, so make sure to do your research.

That said, I tell parents to prioritize their retirement savings goals first before they contribute to a college savings plan—while your child can apply for financial aid or college loans down the road to help cover costs, you cannot take a loan out to fund your retirement.

Fun fund

Last but not least, the fun fund, which in many ways is just as critical as your retirement fund or cash cushion. Your fun fund addresses short term financial wants (everything from a vacation to a new swing set), without jeopardizing your long-term financial accounts (401k, 529 and the like).

Similar to your emergency fund, you'll want to create a high-yield savings account for your fun fund—which will create the illusion that this money is being saved for a specific purpose (even if it's just to have some disposable income ahead of a family trip), and separate from your cash cushion goal.

A word to the wise: When you open any new financial account, it's important to review any rules or requirements associated with the account. Are there minimums? Annual fees? Will your 401k carry over if you move jobs? These should all factor into your financial decision making, so make sure you read the fine print.

And remember, even if it's not realistic to factor all these accounts into your financial situation right now, taking the first step to make larger financial dreams a reality is a huge win in and of itself.

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