I was shocked when I recently listened to this Gretchen Rubin podcast and heard that most families don’t discuss how to pay for their children’s education until the spring of their child’s senior year of high school. I can’t imagine working out those details with my kids during the celebratory season of senior year. Ron Lieber, the guest on the podcast suggests in his writings that you have a conversation with your kids about what college expenses will look like as early as eighth grade! And if you are talking about it that early, you probably want to start saving for college early, too.
My kids are only 2 and 4 but we started saving a small amount each month as soon as we got their social security card numbers and could meet with our financial advisor to set up a 529 plan. We may not be able to fund our kids’ entire education and we don’t anticipate paying for everything related to their college expenses. I want them to chip in and have some skin in the game when they can start earning a little money. We plan to teach them the give, save, spend model very soon. My husband used to teach math and has had several of his prior students contact him years after high school to confirm that he was right about the compounding value of investing. Saving for college seems like one of those things we often “should” do and easily ends up on the back burner. Expenses come up, homes need repairs, and college is 18 years away…and then it’s not.
So you want to start saving for college – what now?
A Chinese proverb says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” No matter where you are on the journey of building the college savings account, determine your goals for financing your kids’ education now.
Set S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) goals for financing your kids’ education.
Here is a printable to help you put pen to paper and process using the prompts below.
Be specific: How much do you hope to contribute to your kid’s education? Educate yourself on how much college actually costs and consider the evolving cost of higher education. Maybe even grab Ron Lieber’s book The Price You Pay For College to get started in the process. What do you expect your kids to contribute, both from their own pocket or hopefully from scholarships and other aid?
Make it measurable: Contact a financial advisor and open a 529 account and discuss your contributions. Celebrate each year as you see the balance start moving up.
- Did you know that even if the designated beneficiary does not go to college, you can use it for a variety of other family members?
- You don’t need a different 529 account for each child. You can open one account in the oldest’s name and then revise the beneficiary once you’ve used the amount from the 529 for the first kid to go to college, so that you can use the account for other beneficiaries.
- Funds from 529s can also go to paying ($10,000 per year) for K-12 school if that becomes a need before college.
Keep it achievable: Consider that this is a SAVINGS account which means you may have to give things up in order to start seeing that account balance grow. Auto-draft is your friend – whether it means $5 or $50 a month. If your friends and family want a practical gift for your kids, share the college fund as an example that means a lot to you in case they want to contribute as well.
Choose relevant goals: The length of time to save, the type of education your kids’ need/desire, and the location of the college they choose can all be factors.
Be mindful that this is a time-bound goal: Start making education a part of the discussion early and make a plan to bring the kids into the full discussion around paying for college BEFORE they enter 9th grade. Kids don’t stop growing. Are yours already in high school? Does it make sense to send bonus checks or tax refunds to an account to make some larger investments, if possible, to catch up? Should you forgo a family vacation every other year and catch up on college tuition?
Completing high school is a significant milestone for your children and for you! And, if it is important to you, your family will find a way to support your children as they pursue higher education in whatever way works. Start now and communicate as openly with your kids as possible throughout the journey. Good news, the tissues you’ll need for graduation night are cheap!