Never too early to plan for college expenses

What parents need to know, and when they need to know it

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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.

But also make sure you have your priorities right. Too many parents — especially those laden with their own college loans — want to spare their children college debt. So they plop money into a college savings account for their children, while neglecting to save for their own retirement. This is upside-down planning.

I've heard from many parents who can't retire because they put their child's education ahead of their own savings, and their child ends up finished with college, enjoying a Wall Street or a law firm salary, and is debt-free.

The rule of thumb for saving enough money for retirement is: Start saving 10 percent of pay in a 401(k), IRA or both, beginning in your 20s. If you wait until your 30s, it's 12 to 15 percent. If you happen to have an employer that offers the typical 3 percent matching money for a 401(k), you can stash away 7 percent of your own pay and — with the free money from your employer — you will hit the 10 percent mark.

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, 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.

Are you satisfied with the 529 plan you chose, and the investments you've chosen within the plan? You are allowed to make changes once a year — selecting a plan in another state if you want, or different investments in the plan. Remember, you don't have to stick with the plan in your state, although many states give you an extra tax break if you do. And you can save money if you go to a state 529 plan directly rather than using a financial adviser. According to Morningstar, the average cost if you do this on your own is about 0.60 percent, but with an adviser it's 1.5 percent — a much higher amount that will detract from the amount you amass.

Say your child received $2,000 from grandma at birth. In the cheap 0.60 fund, the savings would become about $6,680 by college if the investments earned 8 percent. The same investments in the 1.50 fund would be $5,720. Try this calculator.

To identify funds Morningstar thinks are best, go to its list of best funds or check out the Saving for College website. 

As you evaluate the investments, keep in mind what "age-based" means. With that approach, the plan typically invests for you based on the child's age. Up to 4 years old, the money was probably invested about 80 percent in stocks and 20 percent in bonds. Between 5 and 10, it was probably 65 percent in stocks and 35 percent in bonds. The idea is to increase the money as much as possible when the child is young by using a significant amount of stocks. Then the closer the child gets to college, the more conservative the investing becomes so there's less chance of a loss when the first tuition bill rolls around.

You can lose money in 529 plan investments when the stock market goes down, but if investments turn more conservative along the way, you generally have time to recover by college. Many plans offer conservative investments if you can't stomach stocks. But remember the trade-offs. If you select a money market fund or CDs paying 2 percent interest, your $100 in savings a month would total less than $25,000 by the time a newborn makes it to college.

If you have been getting raises every year, consider increasing your contributions to the 529 plan — maybe setting up your account to move money automatically each payday. Also make sure you tell grandma and grandpa not to open any UGMA or UTMA account in the child's name. If your child is going to qualify for financial aid when he or she goes to college, a UGMA or UTMA will poison his chances.

Want to know if you are likely to get financial aid? For a ballpark idea, try the "estimated family contribution" calculator at the college you think your child might attend or: tinyurl.com/finaidest.

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