By Lael Oldmixon
Executive Director, UA College Savings Plan and Scholars Program
August 17, 2015

I am parent of two young children, a higher education professional, and the director of a college savings plan. Education is obviously a core value for my family and saving for college is a task we were committed to out of the gate. My husband and I had an eager “do-right” spirit, typical of any new parents committed to saving for college. I was not working in the college savings arena at the time and our knowledge of 529s was minimal. Like many new parents, we just wanted the best for our children.

Our earnest desire to save was nearly derailed after our first interaction with a college cost calculator. We saw the bottom line and it didn’t look as easy as we had imagined. I would describe the time following the calculator incident as paralyzing. We wanted to save but we were not sure that we could ever reach our monumental goal.

I see many parallels between the college savings journey and that of training for a marathon. The 26.2 miles it takes to complete a marathon is daunting. If you have never run a mile, 26.2 of them can feel like an impossible task. For that matter, one mile can feel unmanageable!

In 2011, shortly after my son’s first birthday, I decided to train for a run called the Equinox Marathon. By all accounts, the Equinox is one of the most difficult trail runs in the country. It’s a hilly course that rises and falls 2400 feet above sea level from start to finish. It’s daunting, and as a novice runner, I had more than enough reasons not to do it, but a strong desire to tackle the challenge.

So how do you start, when the goal is so overwhelming that you are paralyzed? Long distance training has taught me that running takes time on task, patience, and persistence.  Every step I take toward the distance (whether it’s 1 mile or 26.2) gets me closer to the finish. Over the course of the summer I followed my training plan. My goal wasn’t to be the fastest; it was to do my best, to have fun and to cross the finish line.

When race day arrived, I was excited. I knew it would be challenging, but having taken the steps to prepare, I knew I could get to the end. The race was full of bumps and there were a few surprises but eventually I crossed the halfway mark and then I turned my focus to the finish line. I took a few more breaks than I would have liked but always knew I would make it. It wasn’t easy, but making it to the end was something I’ll always be proud of.

My husband and I ended up taking the same approach to college savings. We decided we had to just get started because we knew that every dollar saved would get us closer to our goal. We set up accounts in our state’s 529 plan. Then we initiated automatic contributions, contributed extra money from birthdays and holidays,  and encouraged our relatives to join the effort.

Our little accounts are growing and we embrace the attitude that this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to 100% fund a college education at my alma mater (which is currently $46K/year), but every dollar saved now is one less my kids will have to borrow later. And that’s  our personal best.

One thing I’ve learned: the journey and sacrifices can be fun. This fall I will attempt my second Equinox Marathon.

Wishing you the best of luck on your college savings journey.

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 programs manage more than $6.5 billion for 320,000 accounts. Oldmixon has lived and worked in Alaska since 2006. She is training to run her second marathon this fall.