Megan Nye - The Penny Hoarder

“Have you started saving for college?” a co-worker whispered apprehensively when I announced my first pregnancy at the office.

The question wasn’t unreasonable… even though my kid will be in the graduating class of 2037.

The average bill for the current school year looks like this for four-year colleges, according to the most recent Annual Survey of Colleges from The College Board:

  • Public (in-state): $20,846

  • Public (out-of-state): $35,329

  • Private: $45,170

Those figures reflect tuition, fees, room and board, as well as books and supplies billed by the school.

Couple those staggering numbers with the fact college tuitions have consistently increased faster than the national inflation rate, and my kid is looking at a massive bill two decades down the road.

Do sobering numbers like these keep you up at night, wondering how you’ll ever foot the bill?  

Try this concept on for size...

Don’t pay for college.

Grab your smelling salts. You can absolutely do it.

My parents were educated beyond college and wholeheartedly believe in the importance of higher education. Still, while they offered to pay for room and board for their five kids, they gave us the responsibility of handling the rest of the bill.

At the end of the day, we all managed to enter excellent college and graduate programs, land great jobs and do it all with little or no debt.

How Students Can Pay for College -- Without Their Parents’ Help

Here’s how you can help your kids do the same:

1. Give Your Kids Information Up Front

Tell your children long before they’re 18 what you do and don’t plan to contribute to their college educations.

Let them know you won’t be paying for college.

Their high school academic performance and extracurricular activities weigh heavily in the acceptance process and decide many scholarships. So make sure your kids know they need to make the most of those years.

If you haven’t started already, teach them important financial responsibility skills, like saving, budgeting and managing debt.

2. Reduce the Costs

College doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

Consider high-performing, lower-cost state schools, particularly those in your state. Buy textbooks used -- or rent them.

Room and board costs an average $10,000 to $11,000 annually, according to The College Board. Save some money by finding an on-campus or near-campus room that allows your child to make their own meals.

Have them get a roommate or three. College is more fun with roommates anyway.

If you’re all willing, have your kid live at home during college for free or a minimal cost.

3. Take Advantage of High School

Fewer required courses needed in college means a smaller tuition bill.

Make sure your kid takes as many college preparatory and Advanced Placement classes as possible. Have them sign up for the CLEP exams their desired schools accept.

By taking these steps, they can bypass introductory college classes and even receive college credits before matriculating.

Additionally, consider investing financially in a private high school education to set your child up for success.

Explore your local high schools’ college placement programs, their guidance on scholarship applications and statistics for money awarded and National Merit scholars. Look into the extracurriculars college admission boards love, like leadership opportunities, service clubs and honor societies.

A small investment in a quality high school education can give your kid the personalized resources to prepare for AP and CLEP exams, craft those all-important personal statements for college applications, require fewer (if any) remedial classes in college and connect with influential alumni -- all of which can help save big sums of cash in tuition costs.

4. Major in a High-Paying Field

Admittedly, your vote on your kid’s major is pretty minimal if they’re the one footing the bill.

However, encourage your child to major, minor or at least take a number of courses in STEM subjects, even if their dream is to be a world-class painter.

If they have skills in a lucrative field they can use (or fall back on) after college, they’ll be better equipped to support themselves financially and repay any loans.

5. Get Involved in Finding Money

Not paying for college doesn’t necessarily mean you should leave your children twisting in the wind.

Together, work on identifying scholarships and contests that award money to students.

Think outside the box by looking for low-competition scholarships, like those offered through your employer, church or community groups. Every little bit helps.

Be sure to accurately fill out the FAFSA and any school-specific aid forms and submit them on time.

One mom’s system helped her son earn more than $100,000 in scholarships!

6. Be Smart About Loans

If you own property or a car, you’ve likely taken out at least one loan in your life -- while your kid probably has no such life experience.

Use your know-how to help intelligently filter through loan options.

Crunch some numbers or use an online calculator to estimate post-college monthly payments and determine a reasonable maximum amount your kid should borrow.

7. Consider Loaning Money to Your Kids at No (or Low) Interest

This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

If you fully trust they will follow the repayment terms and the loan won’t impact your relationship, consider alleviating some of your child’s financial burden with a small personal loan at low or no interest… but only if you can afford it.

Put it all in writing and keep meticulous records to avoid confusion down the line.

8. Get a Job

It’s tried and true.

Have your kid get a part-time job or freelance during the school year and pick up extra hours during summer and winter breaks.

Urge them to save their earnings from part-time jobs in the years leading up to college so they have a financial cushion.

9. Look Into Tuition Reimbursement

Many companies, volunteer organizations and military groups will contribute toward or reimburse you for significant portions of your college costs if you work within their ranks.

Have your child consider the possibility of taking reimbursed night classes while working during the day. Or, delay college for a year or more to serve in an organization that will pay college costs.

Do You Plan to Pay for Your Kids to Go to College?

Don’t listen to your friends who are sacrificing their retirement funds for college savings plans.

Ensuring your children get high-quality educations doesn’t mean you have to foot the bill or that they have to go broke in the process.

My husband and I are still discussing how much -- if any -- of the first college bill we’ll cover in 17 years. The thought of paying nothing more than living expenses is still unnerving to him, but we’ve seen it work.

My parents never opened their wallets for any of my college bills. Without their money -- but with the priceless tools and guidance they gave me -- I got myself through those four years debt-free and have an enduring sense of accomplishment.

That’s what I want to give my kids.

Your Turn: Will you try this with your kids?

Megan Nye is a freelance writer and blogger who paid out less than $1,000 to earn her math and engineering degrees. She offers practical advice on seizing control of your time, making smart money choices, and saving your home from the brink of chaos on her blog, Prioritized Living.

I didn’t get laser eye surgery to save money.

But in the long run -- years from now -- I will come out on top financially.

I no longer need to shell out hundreds of dollars for pricey rigid gas permeables. I’m free of the obscene costs of lens solutions, cleaners and protein deposit removers.

My wallet is spared the expenses my clumsy fingers rack up when carelessly dropping a contact down the drain or on the floor (and then stepping on it because I can’t see it).

I don’t need to purchase multiple pairs of glasses just to have one on-hand as backup.

With the costs of contacts, glasses, annual eye appointments, lens cleaners and the enhanced vision insurance plan I needed to keep those expenses manageable, my pre-surgery eyes cost me roughly $300 a year. Just over 13 years of those expenses would pay for the surgery.

I thought of all of these things before signing up for laser eye surgery. But that’s not why I did it.

Why I Got Laser Eye Surgery

I was sick of wearing contact lenses.

In my late 20s, my eyes had become noticeably drier than when I’d first started wearing them in the sixth grade. I was constantly rubbing my eyes, rinsing off my lenses and cursing them under my breath.

I popped them out the second I got home from work each day and was subsequently annoyed by the headache of having clear and fuzzy areas of my vision while wearing glasses.

I was tired of waking up in the mornings to decidedly less-than-crisp sights and irritated by my semi-blindness at pools and the beach.

I chose to spend almost $4,000 on a surgery I didn’t really need to enhance the quality of my life.

And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Still, I kept my Penny Hoarding wits about me. Here are six ways I saved on the procedure, and how you can too.

1. Do Your Research

Elective surgeries like laser eye surgery typically aren’t covered by health insurance.

However, my insurer did have a network of eye surgeons who had agreed to cap their fees at a certain amount. The doctor I chose actually had a deal that dropped the price even further.

Lesson learned: See what deals you can get through your insurer or directly from the surgeon.

2. Don’t Skimp on Quality

The procedure is super-fast and pain-free, but still... someone was cutting into my eyes.

There was no way I would risk my health by latching onto the lowest-priced physician who would do the job.

Rather, I found a reputable doctor with a long history of excellent results. Plus, he offered me lifetime, no-fee laser enhancement procedures, should I need them.

That gave me confidence in his skills and the comfort that I wouldn’t need to shell out more money in the future.

Lesson learned: Prioritize your health and your finances.

3. Plan Your Finances Ahead of the Surgery

As with any non-essential, major purchase, I made sure I had my financial ducks in a row before signing up for laser eye surgery.

My husband and I were both secure in our jobs, and we had a nice emergency fund in place.

We truly could afford to spend the money on the procedure without digging ourselves into a financial ditch.

Lesson learned: Only spend money you’re not going to miss.

4. Land a Package Deal

The nearly $4,000 sum I spent on my surgery included more than just the procedure itself.

Wrapped up in that fee were a handful of pre-op appointments with the surgeon, several post-op visits with my regular optometrist and all of the post-surgery swag I needed -- like super-stylish grandma sunglasses and plastic eye shields.

Lesson learned: Know what you’re getting for the price and seek out a comprehensive package.

5. Look into Government Spending Accounts

My procedure wasn’t covered by insurance, but laser eye surgery is an eligible medical expense for Flexible Spending Account (FSA) and Health Spending Account (HSA) funds.

By stashing cash in my FSA for the year of my surgery, I was able to skip paying taxes on the money I used to pay my bill.

I also learned I didn’t have to delay my surgery until I had contributed the whole $3,975 to my FSA.

Under the uniform coverage rule, you can be reimbursed up to the amount you plan to contribute for the whole year before you actually finish paying into your FSA.

I didn’t have to wait until December 2012, when my FSA would contain the full $3,975; I scheduled my surgery for the second week of January that year!

Lesson learned: Save big bucks by paying the bill from an FSA or HSA.

6. Ask for Free Samples and Coupons

The thrifty girl in me lapped this up.

You’re prescribed some seriously pricy medications for the weeks following surgery to ensure you ward off infection and keep your eyes properly moist.

For instance, I was required to take Restasis -- easily $100-$200 a month -- for several weeks before my surgery and a whopping three to six months after as my eyes healed.

Never one to pay retail and knowing that my doctors got all sorts of goodies from pharmaceutical companies, I shamelessly asked them -- at every appointment -- to hand over some Restasis samples. I also acquired some truly awesome coupons from both my doctors and a little Googling.

Those freebies and coupons reduced my final medication expenses by hundreds of dollars.

Lesson learned: Look for ways to sweeten the deal.

Your Turn: Have you had laser eye surgery? Were you able to save money on any expenses?

Megan Nye is a freelance writer and blogger with perfect vision and an eye for savings. She offers practical advice on seizing control of your time, making smart money choices and saving your home from the brink of chaos on her blog, Prioritized Living.