How to ask relatives to make a gift for your children’s college fund

I got my first message, “Hey, what should I get the kids for Christmas this year?” From a relative, but do we really need more of the stuff? American families get mountains of legos and video games when they can instead use a hand toward more meaningful goals. Incredibly, more than a third of Americans borrowed to give gifts last year. However, the holidays are the perfect time to ask for a “college donation” in lieu of material gifts. However, it can be socially challenging for Mom to ask, “Hey, how about some money instead of those Pokemon cards?” As a result, you end up with a pile of plastic toys and no more finances for future college expenses.

Is this worth asking?

Two years ago, I published an article on the importance of giving to the university during the holidays. It was also the first year that I decided to practice what I preached, nervously asking some family members to consider donating to our 529 Twins account in lieu of gifts. I thought maybe my kids would end up with hundreds of dollars more at most, but I was shocked to find several thousand contributions from loved ones, and we are so grateful for that. You just never know unless you ask, and you do should Requests!

You won’t be alone either. Research from CSF (College Savings Foundation) found that nearly half of parents with accounts will request contributions to 529 plans this year. “As the holiday season approaches, online gift programs will help families engage their friends and networks in setting and achieving educational and career goals for their children,” stated CSF President Vivian Tsai.

The best way to order savings gifts for college

There are many ways to give money to help a loved one, but when it’s for a university, the easiest, safest, least expensive, and most efficient way is to give money directly through the beneficiary’s 529 account and, if possible, to do so using that plan’s gifting platform. More than 45 plans have a gift platform, and for those who don’t, there are alternatives available. Using a 529 plan as a gifting medium provides assurance to the donor that the funds will be used for their intended purpose. Contact your 529 plan provider to ask how their gifting platform works.

A note of caution that there tends to be a growing crew of 529 third-party gift aggregators and crowdfunding platforms. Many charge fees, these fees can be opaque, and their relationships with 529 providers can be uneven at best and non-existent at worst. The turnover of these providers has been high over the years as well. As a result, it’s important to be careful with third-party gifting companies, especially those with a proven track record.

How can 529 account holders ask a family to donate

Sending an email is your best bet when it comes to asking for college money contributions from your loved ones. A personal question can feel confrontational and public messages via social media can be impersonal. Craft a message for the recipient, make a reference to a special memory, and state the benefit of giving. For example:

“Hi Mimi! Liam had a great time with you this summer, and he’s still talking about the cookies you made together. Christmas is coming up and you might be wondering about presents. We’ve been talking about what he might like to be when he grows up, and he’s excited to be an architect.” We could use some help making his dream come true. Consider donating directly to his college savings account this year in lieu of gifts. If you really want to open something up for him, maybe this is a smaller architecture-related gift to go along with the contribution? I promise he’ll appreciate it!”

If you’re direct emailing your loved ones and are having a hard time writing down your thoughts, there’s good news: There’s no shame in copying. If someone else has great language that applies to your situation, why reinvent the wheel? Below are short, direct messages, a clear gifting request for recipients, and instructions on how to donate. Note that these specific directions are for the UGift platform used by Ascensus, the largest administrator of 529 Plans in the country. You will need to contact your 529 Provider for instructions specific to their gifting platform.

Afternoon, good morning [relative name]:

I received my first question of “What can I get the kids?” From soon this year. We appreciate your gifts, but if you’d like to contribute to the 529 College Savings Account in lieu of a physical gift—or perhaps along with a smaller gift—it would make a real difference to our family. You can do this by following these instructions:

  1. go to the
  2. Enter code [the child you want to give to] over here: [insert code here]
  3. Enter your name and the amount of the gift
  4. Present your gift by EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) or check

Thank you in advance for considering helping fund our family [child’s name]College of the future!

Be sure to double check your directions and make sure they work by testing them yourself using an incognito window or working with a friend.

Make your gift “requests” more effective

A money request is most effective when it is specific and offers the donor a clear benefit. “Kids can use the money to go to college” is not as effective as “Click this link to donate directly to kids’ college accounts.” You can ask relatives to donate cash or send money using a service like Venmo, but these services are less successful. It’s easier to provide when you have reasonable assurance that the funds are going toward their intended purpose, which is where a dedicated account like a 529 plan comes in.

Avoid negative language like, “We’ve got enough Legos,” even if it’s true. Use positive language like, “Olivia really wants to study to be a nuclear physicist at MIT, and you can help!” Create a clear vision of the future they will contribute to, and remind them of the person they are helping.

“Long after that plastic toy break from the holidays, the thrifty gifts of higher education teach children the value of long-term goals and the satisfaction of achieving them,” Tsai said. So do your family a favor and take the time to enlist support for college savings this holiday season.

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