By Lael Oldmixon, UA College Savings Plan
My son is closing in on his final days of kindergarten before he graduates to first grade. If this year is any indication, the next 12 are going to fly by – one day he’s heading to first grade and the next –COLLEGE. This is happening way too fast!
Perhaps this sounds familiar to you? As your child inches closer to college it is time to assess your college savings strategies. Saving for college, when broken down over time, is less overwhelming and far more rewarding than waiting until high school to start saving. Here are a few ways to make achieving your college savings goals feel more attainable.
- Set a goal. A savings goal has three components: what you want to buy, when you will need it, and how much it will cost when it’s time to buy it.
Our family goal is to save enough to cover about half of our son’s college expenses over four years. We expect that he will save some of his own money (birthdays, holidays, a part time summer job in high school, etc.) and maybe take out a reasonable amount in student loans. We would like him to have some skin in the game and the opportunity to aspire to attend his dream school without getting sticker shock.
TIP: Use a college cost calculator to help you set your goal.
There are a number of excellent cost calculators available online. The College Savings Plans Network offers a simple college cost calculator which uses your child’s current age, college type (private, public, etc.), college inflation rate, number of years attending, and calculation type (tuition and fees only vs. tuition, fees room and board) to estimate future costs.
SavingforCollege.com’s “World’s Simplest College Cost Calculator” starts with the child’s age and then allows the user to personalize the report to recalculate the results. This works well for individuals who want to be able to see the total projected cost and the recommended monthly contributions needed to reach a target.
Most state 529 plans provide a college cost calculator on their website. You should always check out your home state website and college savings plan. There are plenty of good national plans available to you, but many of the home state plans offer tax savings or other benefits.
- Build college savings into your family budget. Once you know how much you aim to save, you can begin to find ways to build savings into your monthly budget. This may mean driving a slightly less expensive car, or living in a more modest home. Even small budget decisions like eating out less frequently or having a movie night at home instead of out can help you reach your college savings goals.
- Understand investing concepts. A little research goes a long way to better understand basic investing concepts such as the difference between stocks, bonds, money market funds, and mutual funds. This guide breaks down each of the concepts and helps you get started with your planning efforts.
- Get started/Don’t delay. Finding the right college savings plan can be as simple as looking in your home state (which you should always compare to any other plans you might be looking at nationally) or as complex as comparing multiple plans side-by-side looking for other benefits such as minimum contribution size. Check out this plan comparison database offered through the College Savings Plans Network to search for a plan that works for you.
Before you go, I’d like to add one last suggestion:
- Don’t forget about your goals. Use your child’s milestones as an opportunity to review your goals and assess what you can do to increase your contributions.
Some employers offer a payroll deduction option which makes saving automatically very easy. You can also set up your bank account to automatically deduct monthly contributions. As your income changes, you can easily increase your automatic contributions as even small increases to your contribution amounts over time can make a major difference in the end. In addition to increasing contributions when you get a raise or cost of living increase, why not add tax refunds and other surprise income like bonuses to that list too.
As fast as it seems to go by in our children’s lives, the beauty of time is that every dollar you put aside today can grow and bring you closer to your savings goals.
About the author:
Lael Oldmixon works with the Education Trust of Alaska which offers the UA College Savings Plan, the T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan and the John Hancock Freedom 529 plan. The Trust oversees more than $6.5 billion for 320,000 accounts.