How to Save for Your Kids’ College Years Without Bankrupting Yourself

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Do you know what it costs to go to college these days? If not, you should probably sit down for this.

A two-year degree costs more than $3,500 per year on average, according to the College Board. A four-year degree from a public school? You’re looking at almost $10,000 per year. And — take a breath — a private school degree? $34,740. Every year. For four years.

And that’s just the average from 2017.

Whether your child is considering community college, a state school or the Ivy League, higher education is costly. We have more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt to prove it.

Where to from here? No one can be sure, although data shows college prices aren’t rising as quickly as in previous years. To be on the safe side, expect tuition and fees to rise about 3% per year before accounting for inflation.

If you’re thinking ahead about the costs of sending your child or grandchild to college, I realize I may have sent you running for a paper bag to gasp into. But by using these strategies in advance of their college years, you can figure out the best way to support your favorite student financially.

Factor College Savings Into Your Budget

Try not to think about saving for your child’s college education in a silo. Instead, think of it alongside your other financial goals.

Tackle high-interest credit card debt before thinking about your children’s futures. Then prioritize your retirement savings. Remember that your kids can take out loans and get scholarships to help with school costs, but you can’t take out loans or get scholarships when you’re ready to retire.

If you’re confident the rest of your budget is healthy, you can start adding college savings to the mix. You don’t have to plan to cover every dollar of your child’s education.

Even if you start when your child is 10 years old and put away $100 per month, you could save at least $9,600 to contribute toward their education by the time they go to college.

Play with a college savings calculator to determine what’s reasonable for your family, and remember that you can always adjust how much you choose to save over time.  

Start Saving for College Early With a 529 Plan

Want that college fund to go further? Open a 529 savings plan. Available in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., these savings programs are available for anyone to open and contribute to. The accounts are exempt from federal income tax as long as you use the withdrawn cash for tuition or room and board.

There are two options for 529 savers: lock in current tuition rates by purchasing “prepaid” credits at participating schools, or open a regular 529 savings account where your money gets invested while you contribute. For more on the different types of plans, see our guide to 529 plans.

The downside of a 529 savings plan is that it can only be used for college expenses. If your child ends up not attending any form of postsecondary institution, you can name someone else as a beneficiary — or even use the balance for your own education.

But if you take the cash out for any reason other than postsecondary education, you’ll pay federal taxes on the amount plus a 10% federal tax penalty.

Talk With Your Child About Their College Plans — and Your Financial Plans

How much should you save for your child’s college education? The right number is as unique as your family is.

A 2017 survey of nearly 2,000 parents by Fidelity Investments found that 72% of parents were saving for their children’s college educations. Parents planned to cover 51% of college costs from family savings.

That’s generous! But it’s not exactly optimistic. Still, 85% of parents expect their kids to graduate with student debt.

Meanwhile, a 2017 report by Sallie Mae revealed that families are actually covering about 23% of college costs from parent income and savings.  

Start talking about college plans when your child enters high school. Ask them about their ideas, dreams and goals — and expect them to fluctuate during their teen years. Their career goals in ninth grade could be vastly different from their plans as they prepare to graduate high school.

During these conversations, be open about your family’s ability to pay for college.

Being honest about your financial commitment can help your child manage their expectations about college costs and what your family can afford to contribute.

Research Financial Aid Options Early

College years looming? Don’t wait until the last minute to look into financial aid options.

Attend informational sessions at your child’s school or local library, and talk with other parents who already have kids in college.

It’s important to fill out the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — even if you think you earn too much to be eligible. The FAFSA is a gateway to consideration for grants, loans, need-based scholarships and even work-study jobs. It’s used at two-year and four-year institutions, and even some vocational schools.

Your estimated family contribution determined by the FAFSA may seem high, but it’s not an indicator for how much you’ll actually pay once aid has been granted.

About 85% of full-time college students receive some form of federal financial aid.

As your child fills out college applications during senior year of high school, encourage them to apply for scholarships, too. You don’t need straight A’s to be eligible for many awards, and there’s something for students in every course of study.   

This article contains general information and explains options you may have, but it is not intended to be investment advice or a personal recommendation. We can’t personalize articles for our readers, so your situation may vary from the one discussed here. Please seek a licensed professional for tax advice, legal advice, financial planning advice or investment advice.

Lisa Rowan (@lisatella) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

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