Five strategies to take the worry out of saving for your kids’ college education

About 18 years ago, my wife and I committed a horrible lapse of financial judgment. We are still paying for this reckless mistake these many years later: We became parents. At first it seemed like a great idea – staring into the innocent, helpless eyes of our two adorably sweet, tiny angel babies we adopted from China.

If only someone could have intervened – stopped me from boarding that plane for Hong Kong – and pointed out that over the next 17 years, these little angels would morph into retirement-savings-draining, eye-rolling, “take me to the mall now” moody, fashion-obsessed teenage drama queens who would eventually become legally permitted to drive my car and whose primary function on this planet appears to be texting their friends about how lame their parents were for not letting them go to a party simply because we don’t know the boy or his family… if only somebody had intervened back then and told me what we would be in for, I would have undoubtedly made … the same reckless decision. But that’s beside the point.

My point is this: Raising kids is expensive. The return on your college investment is highly speculative at best, particularly when you learn your son has decided to major in Medieval French Gender Studies. For many parents a far less risky investment would be to put down their entire life savings on the trifecta in the second race at Belmont Park.

Back in the seventies, when I went to college, the cost of a year’s university tuition – even for an out-of-stater like me – was comparable to the cost of a nice drum set. Now, to send a child to an out-of-state university or a private college costs roughly the same as the GDP of say, New Zealand. [Author’s Correction: I apologize. The previous statement was a gross exaggeration. I meant to say the North Island of New Zealand.]

The cost of a college education is rising at a meteoric pace. By some conservative estimates, the cost is escalating by approximately 26% each month. (And by “conservative estimates” I mean estimates I just made up as I was typing the previous sentence).

If you were smart enough not to make my disastrous financial mistake by choosing never to have kids in the first place, kudos to you. It must be nice to imagine retiring before age 75 with more than just your stamp collection for retirement savings. Feel no guilt whatsoever about the fact that this weekend you’re going to go out to buy a 28’ power boat – with cash – while I try to figure out whether our family can afford the extravagance of Pizza Hut this evening, given that we just went to the Olive Garden only two weeks ago.

But if you made that all-too-common costly mistake of deciding to raise a family, and you have kids nearing college age, many of the following questions may sound familiar:

  • How will we save enough to provide our kids with a good college education?
  • If we can only send one of our three kids to college, which one do we love most?
  • Why did I listen to my wife when she insisted we sell all our Microsoft stock back in 1989?
  • How can our neighbor afford to send two kids to Ivy League schools on a teacher’s salary? Are they dealing drugs? Should I notify the police?
  • Why did I ever go to that time share presentation in Vegas? That’s $10,000 I’ll never get back.
  • What is the state capitol of West Virginia?

Do these questions sound familiar? (By the way, it’s Charleston. I know that was bothering you, too.) To save you countless years of anxiety over how you will save up enough money to pay for your kids’ college educations, I wanted to share five time-tested strategies you won’t hear from that hack personal investment huckster Suze Orman:

Strategy 1: Acquire one million dollars. Admittedly, this strategy may be more of a challenge for some of you than others. If you happen to have made a fortune by coming up with the idea for Skype or perhaps you know a millionaire you are comfortable blackmailing, this would be an ideal place to begin. This should be enough to cover at least the first two years of college, with enough left over for a few nice dinners out at Outback Steakhouse when you come to visit.

If you are a stay at-home parent, and your spouse’s income is not nearly enough to cover the cost of college – say your hubby writes a humor blog – consider divorcing your spouse for an older, wealthier mate. I might suggest an oil executive, just about any hedge fund manager from Goldman Sachs, or perhaps a graying, former Hollywood A-lister like say Kevin Costner. While at first this may hurt your spouse’s feelings, as soon as they realize they no longer have to cover the college bills, they’ll wonder why you waited so long to divorce them. Besides, Kevin Costner is actually quite a decent fellow, from what I’ve read in People Magazine.

Strategy 2: Cut back on non-essential spending. Look for areas of discretionary spending that you can put on hold. Does your spouse really need to have that heart bypass operation next week? Here are a few other tried ‘n true ideas: Skip dinners in months ending in the letter “r”.  Cut back on your water consumption by only showering in summer months. At Christmas, save money on expensive gifts by handcrafting personalized presents from common household items. (But be careful. I tried this last year – gave my girls friendship bracelets made of pipe cleaners and colored string. They would not speak to me for two weeks.)

Strategy 3: Don’t put off saving. The sooner you start building up your college fund, the easier it will be and the more you’ll have set aside when college arrives. My advice would be to start saving in 1983 – even earlier if you can. Don’t wait until say 2013, or you’re totally screwed, trust me. By then it’s way too late.

Strategy 4: Re-define “a quality education.” Convince your kids that all the elite colleges contain the word “Community” in their name. This simple technique could save you more than $50,000 in the long run.

Remind them repeatedly not to be duped by the insidious propaganda of marginal institutions like Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth. Those schools all suck. They just have slick marketing departments. The fact they all rejected me is beside the point. Trust me, they all totally suck. Suck, suck, suck. Look at their football programs if you don’t believe me.

Strategy 5: Consider rewarding alternatives to a college education. Praise your kids as often as possible for their emerging non-academic talents. Comment casually how gifted a pizza delivery driver you think they could be someday if they played their cards right. Leave pamphlets describing pet-sitting as a career. Tell them how you can envision them becoming a superstar coffee drive-thru barista. Don’t forget to mention all the tip money they can earn.

The sky’s the limit (so long as the job doesn’t require a diploma). Remind them of how much more exciting it would be to become an assistant cashier at Build-A-Bear than having to sit through dull, boring college classes like accounting, mechanical engineering or Medieval French Gender Studies.

If you simply can’t amass the savings to afford paying for college, I might suggest getting your child to focus on stimulating activities other than their studies – perhaps mastering World of Warcraft XII or watching the complete season eight of Seinfeld instead of studying for finals. You may just discover that all your worries about paying for a college education have miraculously vanished into thin air.

That’s the view from the bleachers. Perhaps I’m off base.

Tim Jones - Profile at Safeco - TinyPS:  If you enjoyed this week’s post, let me know by posting a comment, giving it athumbs up  or sharing this post on Facebook. And if you really, really liked it, please consider donating generously to the “Help Tim Pay for College Fund.” God bless you.

© Tim Jones, View from the Bleachers 2011

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  • Published On Jun. 03, 2011 by TEJ
  • 5 Comments


    1. Drew Fisher
      6/4/11

      Once again, I have some insights that, while brilliant, are totally irrelevant and useless. My parents managed to send me away to one of your “crap” rated schools, Columbia, without any college savings at all. This is largely because it happened, not in 2011, not in 1983, but in 1961. The entire cost of my four-year Columbia education, most of which I have forgotten about, was $12,000. When I graduated, I had a staggering debt of $250 (I still have not paid it off, by the way). Today, $12,000 is the cost of cable TV service in a Columbia dorm room. For a month. I know this because of Columbia’s occasional alumni fundraising campaigns. There was one about an hour ago, and I’m expecting another one any time now. My advice to parents contemplating sending kids to college is this: Seriously consider careers in plumbing, electrical work, and computer repair. This will quickly enable your child to BUY a college. Oops, got to go; that’s the phone and — let me check the Caller ID — yep, it’s another Columbia fundraiser.


    2. John Pickett
      6/4/11

      You have overlooked the obvious with regard to child rearing. Send the girls to a military school. It will teach them discipline and useful arts like how to remove lacquer from metal objects, how to spit shine shoes (That’s SO GROSS, Dad), and how to crush your thumb in the chamber of a vintage rifle. And don’t forget the all important manual of arms and double windsor knot – both of which I can do in my sleep and frequently do thanks to those life-long recurring nightmares.

      As far as college goes, you can handle this financially. You just have to work until 2040. I hear humor blogs from octogenarians will be all the rage.

    3. One thought.. if you are a blogger, you have an opinion. If you have an opinion on a blog and one of those degrees from a college/University, you can TEACH (whether or not you know anything). So just when your blood-sucking-I-can’t-wait-t0-be-on-my-own-But-can-you-do-my-laundry kid hits 16years old, apply for teaching jobs—bennies are FREE SCHOOL!!!


    4. TEJ
      6/13/11

      Great suggestion, Little Johnny. I think I’ll update my resume today. Always great advice, my friend. : )


    5. Betsy
      8/9/13

      There’s always online college (thank you U of Phoenix). This way you save a bundle AND your I-am-an-adult-and-I-can-do-what-I-want child can continue to live at home. Think of the savings and all the family time with your 18-22 year old. Sort of makes the thought of spending 200 grand on college seem like a blessing.

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