4 Great Ways to Give Investments to Kids

We show you how to give youngsters small amounts at low cost to get them started on the capitalist road to prosperity.

When Peggy Mangot began giving her nieces and nephews financial gifts more than a decade ago, the process was frustrating. Buying shares of individual stocks was costly and time-consuming; most mutual funds were out of reach because of high minimum-investment requirements; and purchasing a simple U.S. savings bond proved so difficult that Mangot gave up. Sending checks accompanied by newspaper articles with suggestions of how to invest the money wasn’t ideal, either. “Sometimes the check would end up in a drawer,” says Mangot, now CEO of SparkGift, a San Francisco company launched in March to make it easier to give investments to kids. “It wasn’t fun or rewarding for me or for the kids.”

Giving financial gifts today is far simpler and more cost-effective, thanks to a growing number of investment options aimed at tech-savvy investors. However, the best option for any individual, regardless of age, will depend on a variety of factors, including the goal of the financial gift. “Ideally, you want to look at this as not only a gift but a teachable moment,” says Stuart Ritter, a certified financial planner at T. Rowe Price who has three children of his own. “That lesson starts with what your goals are.”

For relatives and friends who want to buy a modest financial gift for a minor, here are four low-cost options.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of Kiplinger’s expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of Kiplinger’s expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

1. Ugifts

State governments that offer 529 college-savings plans have created “Ugifts” to help facilitate small one-time contributions to these tax-favored accounts, says Betty Lochner, chair of the College Savings Plans Network (CSPN), a cooperative that represents 529 plans and prepaid tuition programs.

Account holders (usually a child’s parents) provide friends and relatives who are interested in giving a Ugift a special code that identifies the child’s account without revealing the account number or recipient’s Social Security number. Givers go to the gift-giving section of the Web site (opens in new tab), plug in the code and transfer money from their bank accounts. The account holder gets a message when the process is completed. Givers can also download a gift card that allows them to e-mail a personal message to the parents, the beneficiary or both.

Fees: $0.

Who it’s good for. People who want to give modest gifts to a beneficiary who has an established account will like this. Many 529 plans accept Ugifts in denominations ranging from $15 to $50.

Why look elsewhere. If you don’t want to put limits on how the money is spent, avoid 529 plans. Withdrawals from these accounts are subject to income taxes and penalties if the money is used for anything unrelated to schooling. Moreover, if you plan to give a substantial amount and live in one of the 34 states that provide tax breaks for contributing to a 529 plan, you have better options (see “Open a 529” below).

2. SparkGift

Started by Mangot to address her financial frustrations, SparkGift (opens in new tab) makes giving stock and mutual funds as easy as buying a gift card. The site lets you buy fractional shares in roughly 6,000 investments, from individual stocks, such as Apple (symbol AAPL (opens in new tab)) and McDonald’s (MCD (opens in new tab)), to shares in a variety of exchange-traded funds, including the popular Vanguard Total Market ETF (VTI (opens in new tab)). The minimum investment is $20, and the maximum is $2,000.

You can participate in one of two ways. If you’re a parent and want to create a SparkGift registry, you can upload a photo of your child, along with his or her goals and favorite investments. Share that registry with your friends and family, and they can use it like a wedding registry to follow your wishes explicitly or not at all.

If you’re a donor and want to give stock to a child who doesn’t yet have an account, you pick the stock and the amount you want to spend, then provide the child’s name and the parent’s e-mail address. The site will then notify the recipients and have them set up a new account. You don’t have to be concerned about the market price of the stock. The site will buy as many shares – or a fraction of a share – as your gift allows.

Fees. $2.95 per transaction, plus 3% of the gifted amount. (Mangot says the site is waiving the 3% fee through the holiday season, but will impose it after that. The charge defrays the cost of credit card interchange fees.)

Who it’s good for. If you want to give a financial gift and are not certain how the money will be used, this service gives the recipient the most options of how to spend their funds. It’s also one of the cheapest ways to buy small amounts of stock.

Why look elsewhere. If you anticipate that the accountholder will keep adding to the account in small increments, you may want to give differently because those $2.95 charges can add up. In addition, you can’t use SparkGift to fund a tax-favored college account.

[page break]

3. Capital One Investing

Capital One Investing, once known as Sharebuilder and now a subsidiary of credit card giant Capital One Financial, is essentially an online brokerage that charges $6.95 per trade. But Capital One has no minimum investment requirement, so it can be a good alternative for those who want to start a custodial account or Education Savings Account for a child.

Fees: $6.95 per trade.

Who it’s good for. If you want to open an Education Savings Account for a child to take advantage of tax deductions of up to $2,000 per year, this is one of the few brokers that will accept whatever contribution you can afford. Simple custodial accounts, which don’t require that the money be spent for education, are a bit cheaper at SparkGift if you’re giving small amounts. But because of SparkGift’s 3% fee, Capital One becomes more cost-effective for those who give shares worth $135 or more.

Why look elsewhere. If you plan to make small regular investments, you have better options. At $6.95 a pop, you’re paying a huge commission, on a percentage basis, if you buy, say, a single share of a $25 stock.

4. Open a 529

Ritter, the T. Rowe Price financial planner, is a fan of giving through 529 plans, which are tax-deferred savings vehicles for education expenses. These accounts have many advantages. First, although Uncle Sam doesn’t allow you to take any deductions for contributions, 34 states and Washington, D.C., provide account holders with some sort of tax break or matching program. The federal government, meanwhile, doesn’t tax the investment buildup in the account unless the money is used for a purpose other than qualified education expenses.

Most 529 plans also offer the equivalent of a target-date fund: age-based portfolios that are well-diversified among stocks, bonds and cash and that become more conservative as the child gets older and closer to the first tuition payment. Ritter thinks the concept of diversification is a lesson worth learning, even at an early age. Moreover, he likes the idea of talking about college and making it an economic priority when kids are young and impressionable.

Fees: Vary based on the plan selected. Many plans charge no annual account fees but charge annual fees for asset management, much like any mutual fund. For a comparison of fund fees, go to http://www.savingforcollege.com/529_fee_study/ (opens in new tab).

Who it’s good for. If you are planning to give regular gifts earmarked for education and you live in one of the 34 states (or the District of Columbia) that provide tax breaks or matching contributions, starting your own 529 is the best bet. The tax breaks are generally reserved for residents who contribute to their own state’s 529 plan. Matching contributions of up to set amounts — $400 in Arkansas and $500 in Colorado, for instance — are made to the account for “qualified” recipients in some states. Qualified recipients are usually those with low incomes or those who meet certain requirements, such as opening the account before the beneficiary’s first birthday. You are the account owner. This typically allows you to claim the tax breaks and control when the beneficiary gets the money. (Every plan varies, so be sure to read the terms and conditions.) You can even change beneficiaries, if the original recipient changes his or her mind about college. You can open a new account with as little as $250, and you may have no initial minimum investment requirement if you sign up for automatic monthly contributions of as little as $25. You can find a comprehensive list of 529 minimum investment requirements at www.savingforcollege.com (opens in new tab).

Why look elsewhere. If you are contributing a small one-time amount or live in a state that doesn’t provide tax breaks for 529 contributions, you needn’t go through the trouble of starting a separate account. Also if you want to give a financial gift to someone who is over the age of 18, it makes little sense to lock the money up in a 529 plan. That’s because a young adult is likely to use the money well before he or she can benefit from the tax breaks and the long-term compounding of the investments.

Besides, 18-year-olds with bank accounts have far more options, such as Robinhood (opens in new tab) — a free brokerage platform that operates via smartphone — and Acorns (opens in new tab), an investment platform that charges just $1 per month to manage a diversified portfolio of exchange-traded funds. Motif Investing (opens in new tab), which gives account holders the ability to buy a theme-based package of stocks for $9.95, is another option for those willing to spend $300 or more to set up an account for a young adult. Any of these three investment programs would make more sense for an 18-year-old who wanted to learn about money management.

Kathy Kristof
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Kristof, editor of SideHusl.com (opens in new tab), is an award-winning financial journalist, who writes regularly for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and CBS MoneyWatch. She's the author of Investing 101, Taming the Tuition Tiger and Kathy Kristof's Complete Book of Dollars and Sense. But perhaps her biggest claim to fame is that she was once a Jeopardy question: Kathy Kristof replaced what famous personal finance columnist, who died in 1991? Answer: Sylvia Porter.