How to Pay for College Using RSUs‍

Casey Fenton

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January 4, 2024

As you watch your child grow, the thought of funding their college education might loom large in your mind. With college costs soaring, it's important to explore innovative financial strategies. One such strategy is leveraging Restricted Stock Units (RSUs), a popular form of employee compensation. 

But, is it possible to use RSUs to secure your child's educational future? This article finds out.

Understanding RSUs

RSUs are company shares given to employees as part of their compensation, but with a catch - they vest over time. Unlike traditional stock options, RSUs are simpler and have a predetermined value at vesting. However, they come with their own tax implications and vesting schedules, which are key to your planning.

The Rising Cost of College Education

The cost of a college education has been on an upward trajectory for decades, making it a significant concern for parents and students alike. Understanding this trend is necessary in appreciating the value of RSUs as a potential funding source.

Over the past few decades, tuition fees at both public and private colleges have increased at a rate well above inflation. For instance, data shows that the average tuition at a private college in the 1980s could be around $10,000 per year, whereas today, it can exceed $35,000 annually. Public universities, traditionally more affordable, have also seen similar increases. This surge is attributed to various factors, including reduced state funding, rising operational costs, and increased demand for higher education.

Beyond tuition, other expenses like room and board, textbooks, and personal expenses add to the financial burden. These costs can vary significantly depending on the location and type of institution but often amount to thousands of dollars each year. For many families, these additional expenses can be as daunting as tuition itself.

The financial impact of college costs extends beyond the years spent in education. Students often graduate with substantial debt, which can affect their financial decisions for years to come, including savings, investments, and major life purchases. For parents, sacrificing retirement savings or taking on additional debt to fund their child's education can jeopardize their financial stability.

The Need for Strategic Planning

Given these realities, it's clear that traditional savings methods may not suffice for many families. This is where RSUs come into play. As part of a diversified financial strategy, RSUs can provide a significant source of funds. Understanding and leveraging this form of compensation can help you create a more robust plan to address the escalating costs of college education.

Legal and Tax Considerations

When leveraging RSUs to fund a college education, it's vital to navigate the legal and tax implications carefully. This understanding ensures that you maximize the benefits while staying compliant with regulations.

1. Tax Implications of RSUs

RSUs are considered taxable income at the point of vesting, not when they are granted. This means that when your RSUs vest, their market value at that time is added to your taxable income for the year. This can significantly increase your tax liability, especially if a large number of RSUs vest in a single year. It's important to plan for this tax event, possibly by setting aside funds to cover the increased tax bill.

2. Capital Gains Considerations

If you hold onto your RSUs after they vest and sell them later at a higher price, you will be subject to capital gains tax on the increase in value. The rate of this tax depends on how long you hold the shares after vesting. Shares sold within a year of vesting are subject to short-term capital gains tax, which is equivalent to your regular income tax rate. Shares held for more than a year fall under long-term capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate.

3. Impact on Financial Aid

The income from RSUs can affect your child's eligibility for need-based financial aid. Colleges use income information from tax returns to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). A higher income in the years leading up to and during college can reduce the amount of aid your child qualifies for. Therefore, timing the vesting and sale of RSUs is important to minimize its impact on financial aid assessments.

Trust Funds and Educational Savings

There are also legal aspects to consider, especially if you plan to set aside RSU proceeds specifically for education. Trusts or education savings accounts can be used for this purpose, but they come with their own set of rules and implications. For instance, funds in a trust may be treated differently in financial aid calculations compared to funds in a parent's or student's name.

Strategies for Using RSUs for College Funding

Effectively leveraging RSUs for college funding involves a blend of timing, market understanding, and financial planning. The key is to align the vesting and sale of RSUs with your child's educational timeline while considering the broader financial implications.

✔ Timing the Sale of RSUs

The timing of when you sell your vested RSUs is imperative. Ideally, you want to sell when the market conditions are favorable, and the share price is high, maximizing your returns. However, this needs to be balanced with your child's college funding timeline. You may need to start selling RSUs several years before your child begins college to spread the tax impact over multiple years and avoid a significant increase in taxable income in a single year.

✔ Understanding Market Fluctuations

The stock market can be unpredictable, and the value of RSUs can fluctuate significantly. It's important to keep a close eye on the market and the performance of your company's stock. This vigilance allows you to make informed decisions about when to sell. However, it's also important not to try to time the market perfectly, as this can lead to missed opportunities.

✔ Diversification of Investments

Once you sell your RSUs, consider diversifying the proceeds instead of letting them sit in cash. This could mean investing in a mix of stocks, bonds, and other assets. Diversification reduces risk and can provide a more stable return on your investment over time. However, the specific investment strategy should align with your risk tolerance and the time horizon until your child starts college.

✔ Collaborating with Financial Advisors

Working with a financial advisor can be immensely beneficial in strategizing the use of RSUs for college funding. They can provide insights into market trends, help with investment diversification, and plan for tax implications. Additionally, they can assist in aligning your RSU strategy with other college funding sources, such as 529 plans or scholarships, ensuring a comprehensive approach to financing your child's education.

✔ Monitoring and Adjusting the Plan

Your strategy for using RSUs for college funding should not be static. Regularly review and adjust your plan as needed. Changes in your financial situation, market conditions, or your child's educational plans may necessitate adjustments to your approach. This ongoing monitoring ensures that your strategy remains aligned with your goals and the ever-changing financial landscape.

Case Studies and Real-Life Examples

Examining real-life scenarios where RSUs were effectively used for college funding can offer valuable lessons and strategies. These examples highlight the practical application of the concepts discussed earlier.

Case 1: Early Planning and Diversification

Sarah, a software engineer, started receiving RSUs as part of her compensation package ten years before her son was due to start college. Recognizing the potential of these assets, she developed a plan with her financial advisor. Each year, as her RSUs vested, Sarah sold a portion and diversified her investments, including contributing to a 529 college savings plan. By the time her son was ready for college, she had accumulated a substantial fund, cushioned against market volatility, and spread her tax liabilities over several years. This approach not only funded her son's education but also preserved her other savings.

Case 2: Navigating Market Fluctuations

John, an executive at a rising tech company, faced a different challenge. His RSUs had significantly increased in value due to a surge in the company's stock price. However, he was concerned about market volatility. Working with his advisor, John implemented a strategy of selling his RSUs in tranches, locking in gains while still participating in potential future growth. This staggered approach allowed him to fund his daughter's college education while mitigating the risk of a sudden market downturn.

Case 3: Balancing RSUs with Financial Aid Considerations

Emily, a mid-level manager, was aware that her RSUs could impact her child's financial aid eligibility. To manage this, she strategically sold her RSUs in years when it would have the least impact on financial aid assessments. She also consulted with a college financial planning expert to understand how to best position her finances. By carefully timing the sale of her RSUs and using other savings, Emily was able to maximize her child's financial aid while still contributing significantly to college expenses.

Lessons Learned

These case studies underscore several key lessons:

  • Starting early allows for more flexibility and better management of tax implications.

  • Relying solely on RSUs can be risky due to market fluctuations. Diversifying investments helps in balancing this risk.

  • Financial advisors can provide tailored strategies that consider individual circumstances, market conditions, and tax implications.

  • Being able to adjust your strategy in response to changes in the market, your financial situation or your child's education plans is vital.

Bottomline

Leveraging RSUs for college funding is a potentially rewarding strategy. It requires a blend of careful planning, market savvy, and adaptability. Whether you're just starting to receive RSUs or are midway through your career, it's never too early or too late to consider how these assets can support your child's educational journey. 

Take note that every financial situation is unique, and while RSUs present a valuable opportunity, they work best as part of a diversified and well-thought-out financial plan. We encourage you to seek personalized advice from financial professionals to tailor a strategy that aligns with your goals and circumstances. This way, you can turn your hard-earned compensation into a legacy of education and opportunity for your family.

Curious to know how to maximize your RSU earnings even as a single individual? Feel free to browse Upstock’s blog on RSUs and explore advice on the best investment practices for your equity compensation.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Casey Fenton

Founder, Upstock & Couchsurfing, AI and Equity Innovator

Casey Fenton, the founder of Upstock & Couchsurfing and an AI and equity innovator, has revolutionized how we perceive and implement equity in the workplace. His foresight in creating platforms that not only connect people but also align their interests towards communal and corporate prosperity has established him as a pivotal figure in technology and community building. Casey speaks worldwide on topics including ownership mindset, worker equity, With Upstock and Couchsurfing, he has demonstrated an unparalleled expertise in harnessing technology for the betterment of community interaction and organizational benefits.

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