How to ask for 529 contribution gifts without offending your family

A dad plays with his daughter and son

As the holidays approach, one thing is certain. Neither of my kids needs any more toys to add to their overflowing playroom. But a contribution to their college funds would be appreciated.

It turns out, I’m not alone in this opinion. In fact, 87% of parents would prefer college contributions in lieu of presents from friends and family.

Unfortunately, asking family or friends for money, as opposed to traditional gifts, is a tricky game. Many people act like you’re Ebenezer Scrooge robbing your children of their childhood. Others might worry that the $5 to $10 they usually spend on a gift for a child would be embarrassing to donate to something like a 529.

Want to know how to ask for 529 plan contributions without offending people, and potentially create an opportunity for a larger conversation about financial priorities with the people in your life? Here’s how you can get started.

1. Stick to your inner circle

Your second cousin that you only see once a year around the holidays probably won’t take well to being hit up for your child’s college education. So, responding to your family’s holiday email chain with, “Our children don’t need any more toys. Please consider contributing to their 529 plans instead of other gifts,” before anyone has asked what your kids want, is usually a bad idea. Even if you mean it kindly, it can come off as crass.

Instead, direct this ask to close family and friends – grandparents, siblings, godparents, and close friends. Particularly those who ask you directly what they can get for your child this year.

Grandparents, most notably, tend to be open to the idea of this kind of financial gift. 72% of grandparents believe it is important to help pay for their grandchild’s college education and 90% would be open to 529 contributions over gifts if their children asked.

You know your family best, but for those who love you and your children, they may be more open to the idea than you might expect. Especially if you frame it properly.

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2. Frame the conversation around your child’s future

Many parents’ knee-jerk reaction is to start conversations on this topic with, “our children have more than enough.” And in many cases, that is 100% true. But people who hear that might think you’re just no fun. They give gifts to your child for the here and now. That’s why gift giving is fun.

Instead, frame the conversation around your child’s future. How you’re saving for their education to help them avoid the burdens of student loans. The rising costs of education. How even small contributions add up significantly over time.

It is also a good time to explain to your family what you are teaching your kids about money and consumption. That you want them to grow up to be financially responsible. That you’re instilling the lesson that saving has long-term benefits.

Driving the discussion this way has numerous benefits. It lets your loved ones know that you are working to save for your child’s college too, not just depending on others. Grandparents and family members get to feel like they are helping to encourage lifelong smart financial planning. And they get the sense that your child will appreciate the gift because you’ve taught them the benefits of saving and investing.

3. Have a small traditional gift idea to offer as well

While we all want our gifts to have meaning and long-term value, money isn’t something our society typically views as a meaningful gift. In fact, it often feels impersonal. Part of the joy of gift giving is finding something a person will love, that shows you know and appreciate them.

Think of the stuffed animal a child loves and carries around for years. Or a book that becomes their absolute favorite and is read many times over.

Most people will still want to give something, however small, to your child even if they contribute to a 529. Especially if the child is young and may not understand the future value of their gift.

When a friend or family member asks what they can get your child, have something specific to your child’s interests that would be appreciated.

We like to keep these asks to under $10 since you’re asking these people to also make a college contribution. But make sure that instead of a $5 item that will lose your child’s interest in minutes, pick something they will truly appreciate. For instance, my toddler loves the Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems. He reads them over and over. So, we suggest a book in the collection he doesn’t already have.

Having a tangible gift idea to offer as opposed to or in addition to a 529 contribution lets those in your life still experience the traditional joy of gift giving. And you might also be able to reduce the number of obnoxious toys that enter your house.

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4. Use services that allow direct contributions

Removing the middleman – such as giving people a direct link where they can contribute to your child’s 529 – may make them more likely to contribute.

In the past, those who wanted to donate to a child’s 529 had to print out a form, know the account number, and mail a check directly to the provider. It was a complicated process that resulted in most people just giving cash or check directly to the parents, with instructions to deposit it.

Now, many 529 plans have services built in to allow contributions from individuals besides the account owner. This can be a personalized link found within your account or an area of the plan manager’s website. These tools make the process easy and provide comfort to contributors who like to know for certain where the money is going.

For instance, Fidelity offers a crowdfunding tool where you can create a page for your child’s 529 account featuring their picture, the year they will go to college, and what they want to be when they grow up. In the first three years since the tool was launched, Fidelity reports that over $15 million of contributions came through the tool.

Gratefully accept traditional gifts

Following the suggestions above will likely increase the number of people who are willing to opt for college contributions over gifts. But you won’t convince everyone.

The push to provide presents today is strong. For many people, a monetary contribution will never feel like a real gift. They want to see your child tear off the wrapping paper and hold a tangible thing that brings delight and a smile.

Gift giving is a generous act, and those in your life are going to spend their money how they want. So, instead of feeling disappointed by the people who don’t hear your message, celebrate every dollar that is sent to your child’s college funds and every other act of kindness you experience this holiday season. Thank those who love your kids enough to send any type of gift. And keep your message consistent so more people might adopt your preference over time.

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Chelsea Brennan is the founder of Mama Fish Saves, a personal finance blog that focuses on family finance, investing, and reducing money stress. Chelsea is an ex-hedge fund investor whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, including Forbes, Business Insider, and more.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational information only. Haven Life does not endorse [the companies] or offer the [companies], products, services and/or strategies discussed here.

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC15DTC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Not all riders are available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is 0K71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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