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Five Actionable Ways to Financially Plan for College

April 03, 2023
By Bryan Christensen, Chief Community Banking Officer

I’m often asked when the best time is to start planning for the financial side of college. Although placement tests and campus visits tend to happen during junior year, it’s a good idea to start financial planning well before that. This planning may include:
  • Big-picture discussions on how you will finance college
  • A savings plan that you and/or your child funds
  • Investment vehicles like 529s that grow on a tax-deferred basis and offer tax-free distributions when used to pay for qualified education expenses
Here are a few best practices from someone who’s been through the journey several times, both as a parent and as a banker.
1. Stick to reputable sources. There’s a lot of great information out there about financing college. Government sources, large financial companies, and public resources may not be as exciting as someone espousing the benefits of an investment strategy built around less proven moneymaking ideas, but they will be well vetted. I tell parents to put on their skeptic hats, do the litmus test, and ensure they’re finding financial advice that makes sense and comes from expert voices you can trust.

2. Customize advice to your needs. There is a lot of reliable and free information out there to look through, but it’s best to craft a plan based on your unique circumstances. Are you hoping to get your first child through college and worry about your younger children later? Are you trying to plan for three kids’ education at once? I would recommend doing the research, customizing your plan, and of course reaching out to your bank whenever you need professional input, as needed.
3. Choose tools that give you the most flexibility. Savings you put aside for one child in an instrument like a 529 can always be repurposed if plans change. This is important because your oldest child may do three semesters at college and decide it’s not for them. They may want to take a gap year and work before moving to a university setting. If you can repurpose savings from one child to another, you’ve given yourself some valuable flexibility. Of course, the earlier you start to save, the more flexibility you create. Another feature I highly recommend is auto-deposit. When you can “set it and forget it” in a college savings account, it gives you better odds of saving more.

4. Consider giving your kids some skin in the game. There is research out there that claims children whose parents carry 100% of college costs have lower GPAs. In other words, kids feel entitled without any looming loan payments and take college less seriously. I can’t say whether this is quantifiable, but I do think there is some value to your kids having skin in the college game. Of course, that doesn’t have to mean full financial commitment over the four years. I know of one couple who made their kids pay a significant portion of their first semester. That’s an interesting way to communicate that they need to have enough money coming in to prove that they’re dedicated to making some sacrifices for college.  Their kids knew about this plan a couple of years ahead of time and the parents helped them stay on top of saving for it. It’s really a matter of finding something that works and that fits your family dynamic.  

5. Resist the four-year pressure. In the United States, over one-third of people age 25 and over have completed a four-year degree. Depending on where you live, you may be feeling enormous pressure for all your children to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the best possible school. But you shouldn’t look at this plan as set in stone. A four-year degree is by no means a guarantee that your kids will ride off into the sunset afterwards and have a happy life. There are excellent associate degree programs and trade schools that may be a better fit for one or all of your children. It's okay to explore a path that makes sense for your child's strengths and current situation. There are other ways to build a foundation for their success and happiness, so educate yourself as to what’s available.
College is not cheap these days, but saving for it doesn’t have to make you crazy. Build a budget, have your goals in mind, start planning early, be disciplined, automate features such as auto-deposit, build in some flexibility – because no plan goes the way you think it’s going to – and you and your kids ultimately will get where you’re going.
"I would recommend doing the research, customizing your plan, and of course reaching out to your bank whenever you need professional input, as needed."
Bryan Christensen, Chief Community Banking Officer
by Middlesex Savings Bank