When I talk to parents of middle school students, they often have one of two reactions when I bring up college planning -
- Oh ****, I haven't saved enough! How will my child ever be able to attend college?
- We've set up a 529 plan 10 years ago, we're good, right? Right? We don't need to think about actually PAYing for college until high school.
Regardless of your reaction, I have good news for you! Where you are at today has little bearing on where you could be by the time your child is a senior in high school. It is, however, important to have a sense of urgency now.
You Still Have Time to Save
Maybe you're just now able to free yourself from daycare costs for your younger children? Maybe your child finally doesn't require before and after school care?
For those of you who feel bad because you haven't started saving (and I'm there with you for the moment!), it's not too late. If you're able to put away $100-$300 per month for the next 5 years, you could end up with somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000 saved, depending on the returns of your investment.
You might even be elgible for a tax break from your state if you invest in a 529 plan, and that's free money in your pocket NOW! You may also be able to take advantage of other types of savings that can give you a tax break like Coverdell ESAs and Series EE and I savings bonds.
Give Yourself a Lifestyle Checkup
One of the biggest shocks parents face when they start getting serious about the financial aid process in high school, is how heavily weighted parent income is in determining how much the school thinks you should be able to pay. I don't know about you, but I don't have even 25% slack in my monthly budget leftover to fork over to a college.
The good news is that your income will likely increase over time. The bad news is that your expenses likely will as well. Think about whether you need to buy that bigger house, that newer car, or that 52" TV. Schools don't care how much your mortgage payment is. They don't care if you have car payments.
Can you pay off your cars before your child hits high school? Can you survive in the smaller house knowing that the kids will be out of it shortly anyway - and save yourself the hassle of downsizing. When your child wants that expensive gaming system, think about how you're going to manage that.
Talk to Your Middle Schooler About Money
Which brings me to my final piece of good news. If you start talking about paying for college now with your child, you will be less likely to disappoint them when they've already set their sights on Dream School A.
Be honest about what you've saved (or haven't). Help them make smart money choices with the end goal of an affordable college education in mind. Start educating them about borrowing money, what that means and the responsibilities of paying it back.
If your child has an opportunity to improve their academics, encourage that. The more likely they will be to receive merit scholarships. Let them know that paying for college is a family responsibility. Talk to them about getting a job in high school and college. Let them come up with ideas to save money now.
You got this. It's not too late to save, or too early to set the stage for getting an affordable college education. One that doesn't put your family finances at risk and is a good fit for your child.