Look at your cute baby, and imagine the little tyke wearing a high school cap and gown about 17 years from now.
Picturing the child holding a diploma, when he or she can’t even hold a rattle yet, is probably next to impossible. But that day will come. And if you are like most parents, as you watch Junior walk across the stage to pick up a diploma, you will be vacillating between feelings of pride and utter fear. At that point, your child will be headed to college, and the price tag will be so shocking you’ll be tossing and turning at night.
If college prices continue to climb as they have the past few years, by the time today’s newborns go to college, the sticker price will be about $37,700 for one year of tuition, room and board at a state university and $98,200 at a private college, said Kalman Chany, a college financial aid consultant and author of Paying for College Without Going Broke. For a four-year education, it will be about $161,500 at a university in your state or $426,400 at a private college, he estimates. To put that into perspective, many public colleges now run about $20,000 a year, and some private colleges are more than $55,000.
So maybe at this point you figure you will stick a bat or ball in the little tyke’s hands the moment he or she can hold it, in hopes they are on the road toward winning an athletic scholarship. But let’s face it: That’s a remote possibility. Should you despair?
Remember, you don’t need the entire sum saved for college the day Junior moves into a dormitory room. And during the next 17 years, your salary probably will rise along with college costs, so the numbers won’t look as shocking as they do today. In addition, low- and middle-income families don’t have to pay the full sticker price if they are smart about college choices.
But if you want to make paying for college as painless as possible, you are going to have to start planning now. For the next 17 years, you will have to keep your eye on the calendar. Before children are old enough to get braces, some savvy parents start helping them build the type of resumes that will win scholarships.
Still, don’t count on scholarships to do all the heavy lifting. No matter how polished your child turns out to be in high school, the chances are you will have to come up with a good sum of money yourself. So start now by saving as much as you can. Anything is better than nothing. If you start saving $100 a month for college and invest it in a balanced mutual fund that’s roughly divided half and half in stocks and bonds, you should have about $40,000 by the time you pack up the car with junior’s belongings and head to college.
For college savings, you can make investing easy and the most profitable if you keep Uncle Sam away from taxing your savings. Plop either the $2,000 limit a year into a Coverdell college savings account, or if you can manage to save more, skip the Coverdell and use a 529 college savings plan offered by a state government. Anything you save in these accounts will be tax-free for you and your child if it goes to pay for college. Tell grandparents and other relatives about the child’s 529 plan, so they can send birthday and other gifts into the college fund.
• Elementary school: Maybe you’ve been saving diligently since you helped the little tyke blow out the candle on that first birthday cake. If you were making life easy on yourself, you evaluated 529 plans and chose one with low fees and solid performance, and you’ve been letting the investment experts at the plan invest your money in the manner that typically is appropriate for your child’s age.