Did You Pay Your Own Way Through College?


Can we discuss a parenting topic that is sometimes a stress trigger for me? College savings for kids.

I would say the standard thinking in an average American family is that parents want to, and intend to, pay for their child’s college education. But for many (or most) families, having a fully funded college savings account when little Jimmy or Janey turns 18, isn’t realistic. (Raising my hand here.) And oh man. Those “college calculators” on savings sites and bank sites are so depressing. They basically tell you you’ll need a quarter of a million dollars to pay for child to go to a university. (In my family’s case, times that by 6. Yikes.) And if you’re like me, when you see that number, and feel like you can’t hit it, you just want to ignore it altogether.

For sure, a part of me wishes I could say we dutifully set aside $1500 each month per child, the moment they were born. But it’s not true, and frankly, it was never in the cards for us — we already had 5 kids as Ben Blair finished up his PhD (about 5 years ago). We were still paying for our own education while we should have started saving for our kids’ education. Hah! In fact, we didn’t make room in our financial life for college savings until our oldest was about 11 or 12. Obviously that is not ideal. But it is what it is. And we’re not the only ones. Life rarely works out the way anyone expects.

Then, even when we were finally in a position to start saving for college, I found I was feeling paralyzed about starting, knowing we were so late to the game. I had to consciously let go of my regret at not doing it perfectly from the beginning, and I just had to start. Just start.

On Wednesday night, I was invited to a dinner in the city hosted by ScholarShare. ScholarShare is California’s 529 college savings plan, and it’s managed by non-profit, TIAA-CREF. You know how a 401(k) plan is for retirement savings? Well, a 529 is similar, but intended for college savings, and they give you an important tax advantage — there is no income tax or capital gains tax on the earnings as long as it is used for education. Even though the topic can stress me out, I totally get how important it is, so I made sure to attend, and I’m glad I did.

At the dinner, I asked the head of ScholarsShare what are the top 3 pieces of advice she would give to people like me, who felt (or are feeling) like they didn’t do it right from the beginning, and have ignored saving for college for one reason or another. She said:

1) Don’t be intimidated. Don’t get overwhelmed by the calculators. Think of college expenses in chunks. Tuition. Dorm. Books. Semesters. Maybe you’ll start saving now and have enough saved for books. Or maybe you’ll save enough for housing — and you’ll pay for tuition some other way, perhaps a combination of scholarship and financial aid. Maybe you’ll save enough for tuition, and Grandma will help with housing — or your child will live with relatives nearby the college. You might not be able to save up the whole cost, because it’s massive! But perhaps you can save a year’s worth. Or a semester. It all helps.

2) Anything is better than nothing. Try $25 per month per kid. When you feel like that seems normal in your monthly expenses, say, maybe six months later, try increasing it to $50 per month per kid. And slowly go up from there, if and when your budget allows. If windfalls or bonuses come your way, you’ll have a ready spot to put the funds.

3) Let people help. There may be people in your life that want to help with this. Maybe grandparents or aunts or uncles or close family friends. But they don’t really know how to get started or get involved. You can make it happen. You set up the account and let people know it’s there and that they are more than welcome to contribute to it. It’s an awesome place to put gift money! In fact, after they’ve made a contribution, they can download a “Gift of Education Certificate” to place in a card or wrap with a bow. When grandparents or relatives don’t know what to send for a birthday or holiday gift, this is perfect.

At the beginning of the post, I mentioned this topic can be a stress trigger for me. If you’re the same, I can tell you, that one of the things that helped me let go of the regret at getting started saving so late, is that I paid my own way through college. My parents were hugely supportive, but simply didn’t have the funds. So, I earned some scholarships. I received some pell grants (that’s the student financial aid you don’t have to pay back). I kept a part time job during school. I worked summers. And I supplemented with student loans, graduating with about $10,000 in debt, which I quickly paid off.

Would it have been easier to have my college paid for? Sure. But I managed to figure it out, and if you can’t fully fund your own kids’ college, you’ll help them figure it out too. My current thoughts on paying for my kids’ college education is that yes, I’m planning on it and saving for it. But, if life surprises us and it’s not working out, we’ll figure out other options.

Bottom line: if this topic throws your guilt meter into high gear because you haven’t started a college savings fund for your child, let that guilt go. Being able to pay for your child’s college education is not a measure of how good a person or parent you are.

Your turn. Do you have a philosophy regarding paying for college or grad school for your kids? Do you feel responsible for paying for your child’s college education? Did you pay for your own way at university? Or contribute funds for your housing or food? I’m always curious about this sort of thing because families handle it a million different ways, and I feel like I learn so much from the comments and discussions. I remember hearing from my brother-in-law, that his father was willing to pay for any university he could get into. But for grad school (my brother-in-law is a lawyer) he was on his own. How did your parents handle it? And how do you plan to handle it?



Disclosure: This is a sponsored post, shared in partnership with One2One Network and ScholarShare. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

104 thoughts on “Did You Pay Your Own Way Through College?”

  1. My parents’ philosophy was the same as your brother in law and I was very grateful to graduate without loans. We plan on the same for our kids though if there’s a curveball, like you said, we’ll figure something out. Yes, the thought is intimidating.

    I think the 529 advice is good though families who might qualify for financial aid might be better off putting the money into retirement savings rather than college as college savings would count against financial aid. In general I would caution people from taking financial advice from people who have a product to market.

  2. What a timely post! I have thought about opening 529’s for my kids all year, and now your post has encouraged me to do so before the end of the month. My parents paid for my undergraduate education, but I was able to go to graduate school (in engineering) on my own. This is much easier to do for science and engineering graduate programs since students receive a stipend for doing research and/or teaching, and the tuition is almost always covered by the department. (At least, that’s how it was when I was in graduate school.) Had I gone on to professional school, my parents would have been willing to pay for it, but I had worked prior to going back to graduate school and would have likely paid for a substantial portion on my own through savings.

    My husband, on the other hand, paid his own way through college and two graduate programs. He relied on a combination of scholarships and school loans, which he was fortunate to pay off with the help of government reimbursement funds geared towards encouraging physicians to pursue primary care work. Even though we came by our educations through very different means, we both would like to fund at least the undergraduate portion of our kids’ educations. If our children want to pursue post-graduate studies, we’ll have to see how much we can help them at that point.

  3. When you put it like that, it actually feels better to say, “You are on your own.” According to the US census, the mean income for American families is 51,000 dollars a year. That means giving ten years of combined wages to put 2 kids through 8 years of college…or half of your total income for twenty years. Who does that? Not my parents.

    1. Right. The cost of college is insane. My father was a public school teacher, my mother was adjunct faculty at the local college, and I’m one of 8 kids. I was in college two decades ago, and certainly costs weren’t as high, but there is still no way my parents could pay for college.

  4. One of my kids is a freshman in college. And I can say, after filling out both the FAFSA (federal) and CSS (private school) financial aid forms, that ALL parents’ assets on the table. There are many thoughts how to “game” the system, but realistically, colleges see what you have and what you owe and expect you to be responsible for a good part – a sacrificial part – of your kids’ education. Note: I’m talking financial aid, not scholarships or grants. So I don’t think it is quite true that a 529 plan counts against your chances of financial aid while retirement savings don’t. I have been pleased with our 529 plans.

  5. As someone who just started their freshman year at small, private Christian liberal-arts school that is by far one of the cheapest private schools in America, this topic really hits home. I am so blessed to be able to say that my parents made a commitment to pay for my college education, as well as my three younger siblings; however, they also made sure to tell me that this didn’t meant that I could go anywhere I wanted. There were certain schools where my attendance rested on scholarships that I would receive. This brings me to my second point, and probably most important. Don’t rely on scholarships. I was a straight-A student in high school. Highly involved. Well-rounded. Motivated. National Honor Society. I got nothing. Not a single penny. And neither did many of my friends. Getting scholarships these days is like throwing a dart with your eyes closed after you’ve spun around twice. It’s a crap shoot. It sounds mean and it sounds harsh, but it’s true. That being said, I do think you should work hard in high school and I am glad to be spending the next four years at my particular institution.

      1. One glimmer of hope, though: I took eight AP classes in high school and was rewarded when the college I attend counted them as credit. Because of that, I came into college with 25 credits already on my transcript! Working hard definitely has its perks… just wanted to throw that out there before you got too sad. :)

        1. That is how California is (I don’t know if your in CA), unless you qualify as financially needy…at a public school in Ca you can expect to get nothing.

  6. My husband and I both graduated around 2006 and we always feel like right those were the last affordable years of tuition. I was floored to find out what it cost when my younger cousin graduated in 2013. My husband brings in a handsome salary and yet i don’t know how we will be able to afford helping our children with how costly it’s getting. And we often ask ourselves, “Do we set asidmoney for college or do we use that money to take our kids to museums, orchestras and operas, and educational traveling?” I can’t help but feel like the latter has a better return on their lives , and therefore our financial investment, than four years in undergrad.

    1. Such a good question, CeeBee. We have similar conversations. Our oldest is interested in studying film, but one film school graduate advised us that he would rather have had $80,000 to make his first movie, than pay that in tuition. I don’t pretend to have the answers!

      1. I went to NYU for film and graduated 12 years ago. I specialized in Dramatic Writing (but still took a few production classes) and would tell your son the same thing my professors told me and I tell the teens who have asked.
        There are 2 reasons to go to film school:
        1) To learn to tell stories from masters of their craft. This skill will serve you whether you become a lawyer (a few former classmates) or end winning Macarthur Genius grants (2! former classmates).
        2) To build connections that will help you in your chosen career. I got my first copy writing job because the person hiring had gone to NYU a few years earlier. This year, I hired a former classmate as the new YA Editor at the publishing company I started several years ago.

        If you’re going to study the arts, I’m a firm believer in only going to the best schools with the best networks– a lot of what you’re paying for is the name and the connections. If that isn’t a possibility, you can learn everything you need to know, particularly from a production standpoint from YouTube and playing around with a camera. After that, it’s all hustle.

        I am not working in theater, film or TV. I am using the skills I began developing in college to run a successful company that I would not have started if I hadn’t gone to film school. From the people I know who have been successful, it all comes down to how hard you are willing to work.

        1. I have an MFA in theater design and I work as a set designer in TV now. I would add that for an artist, getting a well rounded liberal arts college education is important. For the rest of your art-making life you draw on your life experiences. College can help you figure out what you want to make art about. Maybe in a biology class you realize that you are passionate about making a Rachel Carson biopic. I have read way too many film scripts about nothing – and not in a funny Seinfeld way but, in a boring please-don’t-waste-your-time way. Finding your voice is part of the process. Also, I echo what Calee said above. Connecting with other students and alumni is invaluable.

        2. I agree with this! My husband and I both went to USC for our MFAs in Film (him in production and me in producing) – and the network of a top school is really key. Being USC grads has opened a lot of doors for us both. I also feel (in a way) the same about law school – I went to Berkeley for law school (paid for in part by merit scholarship) – and going to a top school has helped out in terms of getting that first job (at a big firm). Now I am a SAHM and I homeschool – so all my degrees aren’t really as useful as they once were. Ha! I paid for all of my education (undergrad at a flagship State school, master’s at USC and law at Berkeley). I wouldn’t change that for anything. For my own kids, I have a plan for them that involves helping them through college – but I don’t intend to pay full ticket value at the tune of $50k/year – they will most likely start at community college, transfer to a UC during Junior year, and then for grad school – hopefully they will get funding through grants or I will help them. There is also the possibility of me working while the younger children are in college – since I have the ability to earn a good salary and that money can go towards their tuition at that time. Right now I am focusing on using our money to pay for things like piano lessons, gymnastics, theatre class, swim team, going to museums, and travel. We never know what tomorrow holds (and if our kids will even want to go to college!) – so I don’t plan on worrying too much about college right now.

  7. My parents paid for my undergraduate education but I was completely on my own after I got my diploma. My parents were definitely not willing to pay for anywhere either. My dad insisted that I could get a great education at a really good state school and that graduate school was the better place to really seek out top schools in my field. Also, he just wasn’t willing to go into a huge amount of debt and I respect that (even though I resented it at the time). I paid my way through graduate school, through a combination of loans and jobs. For my kids, we opened a 529 account for each of them when they were born but the only contributions so far have been from their grandparents. They each get a sizable gift ($500-1000) on their birthday and that’s where it goes. We hope to start contributing regularly to them eventually but for now our other expenses don’t allow it. We do prioritize retirement savings over college savings – both my husband and I have retirement accounts that we contribute to monthly. It is a little intimidating to think about how much it’s going to cost for our 3 kids to go to college but we’ll figure it out somehow. I’m grateful we have help from our extended family and I hope to pay it forward someday if I have grandkids!

  8. My parents graciously paid my college tutition, fees and room and board for 4 years. I think my parents invested the money to grow it the most. Now that I have a newborn myself I need to figure out how they did it! I’ve got the VA 529 bookmarked.

  9. We are in the thick of this with our high school senior. My advice – go to your local library and check a book on paying for college. Most of the big college guidely type of folks publish one (for that matter, check out a few – there are lots of options). The finanial aid formulas are tricky, and it helps to understand how the schools think about aid. For example, your child may be better off concentrating on grades instead of holding a part-time job during high school. I wish I had started reading about it when my child was much younger, and I would recommend it for parents of any aged kids (there are books with advice based on your child’s age).

  10. I am very fortunate that my parents paid for my 4 year, private liberal arts college-and I got a very small merit scholarship each year. However, I graduated in 1988-room, board & tuition combined were $12K a year. My husband paid his own way-both undergrad and PhD, but at University of California schools, and back in the late 80s and early 90s when it was actually possible to do that without going into massive debt. He worked part time, got grants and scholarships and had no student loans. We under NO illusions that is possible anymore. We have 4 kids and it is mind blowing to think about what we’re going to pay for them to go. We’ve said we would pay for undergrad (within reason!) but not graduate school. Our oldest is a junior in high school, and we are definitely encouraging her to go to either a state or UC school. But even those will be between $25-32K a year all in. We do have 529s for our older 2 kids, but not our 2 younger. I’m definitely going to look into the plan you mentioned. I’ve always been so blasé about college expenses, but now that we’re actually 18 months out-I’m really freaked out, honestly.

  11. My dad offered to pay for 1/2 of the cost of a BYU education (ie, not just tuition, but the estimated costs of being in school according to the website), no matter where I decided to go to school. BYU is ridiculously cheap for a private school, but I think a lot of state schools have comparable prices. He saved up that money with US Savings Bonds from the time I was a wee one, as well as enough for all 6 kids in my family to get the same deal: 1/2 the cost. So to pay for the rest of it, I worked 20 hours/week every week I was in college + full time summers. I took out one small loan to go on my study abroad, but I was smart with my finances and I paid it back before I graduated. Whenever I read these kinds of things on the topic, I am reminded of the miracle and blessing it was that I graduated debt free, with a little cash in my pockets.

    PS my husband was pretty cheery too, that by the time he graduated and we got married I had enough to pay off his student loans (his were only $4,000 because he worked his tail off too). It pays to marry a girl with a smart dad.

  12. We always planned to pay for our children’s education and were happy to give them that start. To accomplish this we did have to sacrifice. No fancy vacations or expensive clothes, but it was worth it and now that they have graduated we are making those plans.

  13. I fully intend for my kids to pay all if their tuition. I’m considering paying for living expenses. If they work hard enough to get scholarships, I’ll pay for them to live. If they slack and can only get Into community college, I’ll pay for them to live at home. I paid every penny of my college and appreciated it so much more. I had a scholarship my first year, was not able to keep it, and worked my booty off the rest of the time after that costly lesson learned. I worked part time every semester and full time plus during the summers. It made me manage my time and money so much more. I appreciated every good grade so much more and cringed at every bad grade knowing it was my hard earned money wasted. My dad was kind of enough to give me a very low interest loan to help with one semester at a time so I finished college with a debt of $2500 to my dad which took a couple years to pay off. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way except maybe actually going to class that first semester and keeping my scholarship.

    1. I wonder about the ‘parents pay for college’ model myself sometimes – and I’m an outsider to your system being Australian (it’s different here but there are moves afoot to make it more like yours, much to the disappointment of many people who are used to subsidised education). I’ve had many friends who spent years goofing around at university who suddenly got really serious and passed with flying colours. What happened? Parents said they weren’t paying anymore. Of course this isn’t how every young adult behaves but I think having to pay your way teaches you all the fantastic life skills Elizabeth has documented so well.
      Things are a lot more expensive now so I quite like the half-half deal, where parents contribute half the expenses and the kids handle the rest. Hopefully this still teaches those same values without terrifying the kids with a huge loan over their heads. I also really like the idea of kids contributing from when they’re old enough to understand – seeking out scholarships, competitions for tuition, part time work/summer work, etc. It helps if they start saving earlier (not just once they get to uni) and teaches them a lot along the way.
      We have four kids, so we are very interested to see how Australia’s politicians change our university level education system. I worked for my degree (joined the military) but had I not I would have live free at home and handled the fees myself, which is kinda half-half.

      1. I agree. Managing one’s own tuition is really something that students have the power to control. It’s also an incentive for working hard and making wise choices both before and during college. Living costs are the part that we will consider helping our children with. I personally saved before college, worked hard to earn scholarships and sort out financial aid, worked through college (part-time), didn’t own a car, lived on a food budget of $40/month (cereal, frozen veggies, canned fruit, beans & rice…it was gross), and also made sure I didn’t waste a single credit, and I had a glorious time! It was incredibly rewarding to graduate with just a little debt that I paid off quickly. My parents were very supportive and encouraging, and even if they had the means, probably wouldn’t have changed a thing. (I did have grandparents and other family members living nearby who would sometimes stock my fridge, let me do laundry, or drive me around to run errands.) I wouldn’t want to rob my children of the satisfaction and confidence I gained from managing my own affairs at 18 with loving and encouraging family cheering me on.

  14. You always have the best topics and I love learning from all your readers! My parents paid my room and board when I lived in a dorm, or apartment or at home. I was responsible for my tuition and books and any other expenses. I got scholarships and worked 2 jobs each summer while not in school. My parents also let me use one of their cars most years. I graduated with my RN and zero debt. With my own kids, I plan to help as much as possible but there is no way that we can pay for everything. My husband and I are aggressively saving for our retirement. To me, that seems like the most responsible thing to do with the amount of money we have. There are no “retirement loans” or scholarships like our kids could get when college time comes . As our income grows, we plan to keep saving for retirement and put extra towards college. Good topic!

  15. So glad to see this topic on the blog and your honest thoughts! I am a CFP, and always tell my clients that yes, savings for college is important, BUT there are sooo many options for college…scholarships, working part time, pell grants, loans, gifts from family, paying out of extra cash flow from your income…so yes,save if you can for sure. BUT BUT BUT none of those options exist for your retirement. You can’t get a loan or scholarship for retirement, so that needs to be the top long term savings goal!!! Your kids will thank you too if they don’t have to be financially responsible for their retired/elderly parents!!

      1. That’s where I’m at. I’d rather save for retirement so my child doesn’t have to take out school loans while he’s taking care of us because we didn’t plan well enough to take care of ourselves! I put myself through years of community college before graduating from a state school and then attended a private school for my MA. I will be paying off my school dept for years to come, but there is nothing for me in retirement if I also don’t plan for that, unlike my son who will have several options to get through school. It’s a touch choice to make. One of many tough choices as a parent.

  16. This is a stressful issue in our home as well. We have 4 young children. We started a 529 plan a few years ago and contribute a small amount monthly. Even doing that, we’ll be lucky to cover 1 year of school for each of our kids. My husband and I both work, so we are assuming there will be no financial aid available for our kids. On top of that, who knows what the situation will be in 10-15 years when my kids are starting college. Will tuition even be affordable? Will there be student loans available to kids whose parents tried to save or will we be punished for trying to save what we could?

    We know we will not be able to pay for 4 years of college for all of our kids. We would like to give them a fighting chase though. For now we are doing what we can and we’ll just have to see what the world looks like in a decade.

    1. I know what you mean. We talk a lot about the college landscape of the future. How important will a college degree be? Willing learning a trade skill be more important? How expensive will tuition be?

      I think you’re so smart to be doing what you can now, even if you won’t be able to cover the entire cost. I’m sure your kids will appreciate anything you can offer.

  17. Let me first start out by saying I work in the Financial Aid field at a major university. I have conversations with parents entirely too late- I want to tell them to rewind 18 years and start saving from time your kid is born! But, you did hit it correctly when you said start when you can; something is better than nothing.

    I know this is a sponsored post, but since many of your readers are Utahns, it’s a disservice not to mention Utah’s 529 plan (Utah Educational Savings Plan, http://www.uesp.org/). It’s widely considered one of the best plans in the country, and if you’re a Utah resident you qualify for tax benefits on your state taxes. Any person from anywhere can open an account however, and there’s no minimum. In fact, more participants in the plan are from states other than Utah than Utahns.

    As for me personally, I contribute towards a Coverdell Account, which has a maximum contribution of $2000/year per child, and also contribute to the UESP plans for my two kids. Any time either of them get $ of over $10, it does in their funds. Once they get a little older (they are still preschoolers), and have an idea of money that they receive, they will start a savings plan of their own, probably where at least half of their gifted money must go towards their UESP. I think it’s just as important to teach your child to contribute towards their own educations from the time they were little as the parents. Yes, the parents will contribute more dollar per dollar, but the child must have a vested interest in the money as well. It makes the value of the education more important if they understand the hard work and years of savings that went into it.

  18. Auch! I had finished college for free(tuition was free, books were not, I lived with my parents which is common here, during my college years) And I think that is the main difference between USA and Europe….You can always send your kids to study in Europe, it is way cheaper and they can pay for other expenses by teaching English to locals.

    1. Hah! Your comment made me laugh, because just the other day, Maude (our second oldest) said, I’m going to go to college in France. It’s free!

      And then we all started wondering if it was free for non-French students, or just for citizens. I have no idea. But fun that you brought it up.

      1. It’s not free for non-French ;). In Switzerland tuition is minimal as it it subsidized, however, foreign students pay a lot more. It’s probably still cheaper than many US schools though.

    2. Can you tell me more…and where, in Europe? I was under the impression that it was difficult (impossible) to get a job if you are not a citizen.

  19. Student debt has been the bane of my existence. I just paid off my student loans in August. I am 37 years old and a lawyer, I make good money but borrowed 75K and paid another 75K in interest. I vowed I wouldn’t have kids until I could afford to save for their future. I know this isn’t for everyone, it is just the way I have to do it for me. (And I’m Canadian married to a Canadian-European with access to very cheap, very high quality education compared to the US). I hit the jackpot and have a mother-in-law who maxes out the RESPS for our kids each year and I save an additional $100 per month for them. I can honestly say that the knowing that my daughter who turned four last week has 24K in eductional savings and my 13 month old has almost 8K make me incredibly happy and proud. I was expected to work and earn scholarships by my parents and did, but the money will hopefully be there for them, regardless. I have a meeting this week to set an additonal investment vehicle for them through life insurance and a critical illness policy, as well.

    1. Loans are making us crazy too. My husband just finished a nurse anesthesia degree and we’ll still be paying off his loans when our oldest starts college in just four years!!!!

      Sounds like you have a nice set up though! Everyone needs in laws like that :-)

  20. The thought of parents paying for the entirety (or even most of) their kids post-secondary education has always seemed strange to me. Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, and college seems to be a lot less expensive here, but I can’t think of a single person I know whose parents payed for all of their schooling. Some, including me, had some help, but not everyone did. We do have savings plans in place for our kids, but I know those savings plans won’t pay for all of university/college/etc, and I don’t feel in any way that they should.

      1. I think it totally depends on your income level. I had almost no help with school (10 months of $200 rent my freshman year, and then I worked the rest of it out myself with scholarships, grants and part time work) but expect that I will help my kids a lot more because my husband and I make more money than our parents.

        1. My parents paid for all of my university education, including books, rent and food. I was very fortunate and it made everything just a bit easier. Plus I am very grateful that I did not have to start off working with a large loan hanging over my head. The same for my also Canadian husband, his teacher parents paid his way through Engineering which is a long program.

  21. I love reading this post and the comments.

    My parents paid our housing/food and we were responsible for our own tuition and books. My in-laws did the opposite – they paid tuition and kids were responsible for room and board.

    My husband thinks my family’s system was way better because we were really motivated to get scholarships and also get through college in a reasonable time, while my husband’s siblings mostly took a long time to get through college (free!) and all lived at home for free, and they basically all regret missing out on living on campus or with roommates.

    1. I think I like your family’s system better too. At my university, if you made the Dean’s list, you received full tuition the next semester (I think I’m remembering that right). Good motivation for getting good grades!

  22. When discussing the fact that I paid (mostly) my own way through college the first thing I think about is how proud I was of doing it myself. Not because I was so smart and sat down with my parents ahead of time and figured this all out–just the opposite! For some reason we didn’t really discuss the reality of college and how it would get paid for until it was upon us. I had assumed there was this magical college fund and uhhhhhh, there definitely was not. My point is, looking back I made it through college on a wing and a prayer–making it up as I went. I even took one semester off to save up more for the next semester and it seemed that a lot of people gave me that “uh-oh….she’s taking a semester off, that means she won’t go back.” But I did and somehow graduated. Still the reality is I made A LOT of really bad choices financially that I didn’t really understand at the time because I was figuring this all out on my own, but I did it.

    I guess what I’m saying is that for me the financial aspect is one part, but what about the philosophical aspect? I have always thought that even if we can afford to pay for all our children to attend the college of their choice, I don’t want to. I want my kids to earn and own their education and I feel like the best way is to pay for a portion of it themselves. Granted, part of me remembers my college years and wishes I would have had more help, but I don’t know… there was something about knowing it wasn’t handed to me that I’ve always felt a lot of pride in and the struggle was part of that. I guess I want my kids to struggle a little–BUT I do want to give them more guidance than I received.

    1. I hear you on ideally finding something middle ground — giving them a chance to be financially independent, but helping them skip over some the hardest parts or biggest mistakes. I liked Patti’s comment above about have them contribute to their own college savings account as they grow up, so that they feel ownership of it.

  23. Michelle Rackley

    I wish they had something similar to help pay for LDS missions. We have 5 sons and 2 daughters, that given their ages, will be out two at a time. We will guide them and help them save as much as they can before they leave, but I am sure it won’t cover everything. Thank you for posting this.

  24. My parents didn’t pay my way through college either. I’m the oldest of 7 kids. My dad was a public school teacher and my mom was a homemaker. I knew from the beginning that I would have to figure out how to pay for college myself. But there was always the expectation that I would go to college, which I am thankful for! I managed to get a full scholarship and with part-time/summer work, various grants, and a little help from immediate and extended family, I was able to graduate debt free! It was hard work, but I really feel a sense of accomplishment that I might have missed otherwise. We are saving a bit for college for our kids, and like you we joined the game late, but because of my experience I know that we can make it work! Thanks for this post; it’s good to hear there are others doing the same!

  25. I’m from a family of 10. My dad was a carpenter and my mother was a school lunch lady. There was no way for them to pay for college. I worked a lot, got a couple of grants, and took out some student loans to finish. I can see helping kids get through college but I think it’s good for them to share in the responsibility of paying for their education. Nothing like having some skin in the game to keep you focused.

  26. I agree with Ali about the idea of it being kind of odd to assume parents will pay for post-secondary schooling. While my parents were generous to me by helping with expenses here and there during my university degrees (such as groceries, books, or rent occasionally), they did not try to cover everything and I recall respecting that even as a student. That said, I was told from the time that I was about 10 that I needed to be saving for my education, and was given practical advice on how to do that (such as saving at least 50% of my earnings from my part-time job during university). I think it is really important for parents to be having honest conversations with their kids about saving for university, and if they are hoping to cover some of those expenses, how much. I had a few friends who were very surprised after the completion of their first year of school that their parents were unable to provide for any more of their education. I think if they had been aware of that in advance they most likely would have been more careful with their own financial choices.

    1. “I think it is really important for parents to be having honest conversations with their kids about saving for university, and if they are hoping to cover some of those expenses, how much.”

      That’s a really good point, Meredith.

  27. Whoops, I meant saving my income from my part-time job during high school. University would probably have been too late to be accumulate very meaningful savings. :)

  28. My parents helped but didn’t pay for it all and grad school I was certainly on my own. Once we married, my husband and I used Dave Ramsey’s baby steps to pay off all our own college and grad school loans in just 22 months (felt long at the time though). And then we started saving for our kids. My husband’s parents paid for his college but he also got his AA in high school and then went to a state school. We would love to be able to fully fund our kids’ school but have other financial goals and still want more kids. So anything we add now and later helps even if it’s not 100%.

  29. My parents paid for half of my college expenses (tuition, books, room and board). I was responsible for the rest. I saved money for summer jobs while I was in high school and I worked in the summer while in college. I didn’t have a car. I lived in a dirt cheap apartment. I went to an in-state school. I took out a small loan my senior year. But, I appreciated my education more I think than some of my friends whose parents paid for everything. I was more invested in my education because I was paying for a good portion of it. And I am grateful for what my parents contributed because I know that it was a sacrifice for them. Now that I have kids of my own I think I will work out the same kind of deal with them.

  30. hi Gabrielle! It’s the first time I try to leave a comment, hope you understand my English (I am Spanish) . Reading this I feel so weird. How much money do American parents need to earn for college? Now I’m starting my Phd in Spain and my mother have never needed to pay nothing since school. I mean I’ ve studied college for five years, then made a Master and now Phd. It’s been 7 years paying nothing. I must say I had a scholarships thanks to my marks but anyone can receive a scholarship just passing the exams, high marks are no needed. And if you don’t pass, registration in college is about 1000 € per year. And then it’s Germany where college is free. So what happen in the U.S.? Why college is so expensive? Maybe due to high living in the U.S., high level colleges or due to registrations’increasing ?

    1. I don’t have all the answers to your question, but here are a few of my thoughts on why college is so expensive in the US:
      1. The US system tends to be generous in tax breaks instead of government services. So from everything from healthcare to children to business expenses, any government “assistance” usually comes from a reduction in taxes owed instead of free/ no-cost programs.
      2. US colleges are, as I understand, considered the best in the world and many offer small class sizes and excellent facilities and professors that raise the cost.
      3. Many colleges are for-profit or, if they’re non-profit, trying to add to endowments and annuities, so the high prices are a business procedure.
      4. College sports are extremely popular in the US and many colleges spend a ton of money on their sports programs- facilities, scholarships for top players, coaches, etc.
      5. College administrators (the college president especially) tend to have extremely high salaries, just like CEOs of many American businesses have incredibly high salaries.
      6. A college degree is now pretty much a necessary entry ticket into almost any decent job, so the demand for colleges is increasing and allows them to charge more.

      That said, many Americans are outraged at the increasing cost of colleges and calls are increasing for the federal government to put some kind of limitation on costs or more programs in place. We’ll see if that actually happens.

  31. Interesting post and comments. My parents were always very honest about the fact that they had no plan to pay for my college – it was my responsibility. I got loans, went to a (very good) in-state school (UNC-Chapel Hill), and I had jobs throughout. I graduated with some loans, but I paid them off relatively quickly, and that was that. I applied to some more expensive private schools, but when I didn’t receive adequate financial aid packages, my decision was made. I regret nothing, and I completely understand my parents’ position.

    My husband and I have college savings plans for our boys, and we’ll save what we can (prioritizing our current lives and experiences and retirement above it) but we are realistic and know that we won’t have enough to be able to pay for everything. They will get jobs and contribute as well, and if we need loans and grants to cover the rest, we’ll figure it out. And it means that some of the crazy expensive schools may simply not be an option, which is okay.

  32. My husband and I thought about opening a 529 but then realized that all of the funds had to be spent on a formal education. The world of education is changing so much – who knows what it’s going to be in 16 years from now. A lot of degrees don’t turn into jobs and I think ultimately the education field will be forced into a more “skills” based where you can prove a your qualifications.

    We decided to open a mutual fund and throw $3000 in it for our baby girl. All the money for Christmas and Birthdays she gets from family – goes into that – and we’re banking on the fact that the fund will be at least a little more when she’s 18 than what it would be than just putting it into a saving account. It’s more risky – but you never know.

    We also liked the idea of a mutual fund because it felt like we were still in control of it. Ultimately – this is our money, not hers, and so we will all decide together the smartest way to spend it, not just hand it over.

    1. This has become my husband’s philosophy over time too. We started 529s with our 2 older kids, but nothing with our 2 younger. As our family has grown and gotten older my husband (who is in finance) reasoned that it was better for us to just save in other types of funds that we could access for a variety of things (i.e. maybe help them start a business, our retirement). I guess time will tell-but it’s certainly different world than we went to college in the 80s!

  33. I haven’t seen ROTC mentioned in any of the comments, but it is a great way to pay for college. My parents agreed to pay in-state tuition (I lived in Virginia — great state schools) but said that if I applied out-of-state or to any private college, I had to simultaneously apply for an ROTC (reserve officer training corps, aka US military) scholarship.

    4-year ROTC scholarships aren’t “easy” to get, but they are easier than most merit-based programs. 3 and 2 – year scholarships are even easier again. I went to the University of Notre Dame; my parents contributed what it would have cost to send me to U-VA (which pretty much covered room and board at ND), ROTC paid the rest (tuition, books, plus a stipend), and I graduated debt-free. Yes, I owed 4 years to the US Army, but it was kinda nice to be a senior liberal arts major with a guaranteed job (!!) and those 4 years in the Army were a great learning experience (in leadership, in getting along with a VERY diverse group of people, I could go on…).

    Just another option to consider…

  34. My dad made a fair amount of money, but divide that by ten kids and it gets spread thin. However, they don’t take that into account on financial aid forms where they want to know exactly what your parents make, whether they plan on helping you for college or not. Thankfully, I got a scholarship, had a part-time job, and after I got married (and then not considered a recipient of my father’s income), my husband and I were able to get pell grants. We were blessed to get our undergraduate degrees debt-free! Now however, my husband is starting grad school in the spring and we are looking at big loans for that, yikes! Like you said, we haven’t paid our own way out of school yet, so our now two year old son, is going to have to wait several years for us to be able to set aside any money for his future education. But we’ll figure it out when we get there!

  35. Liz Piccione-Volger

    This is a great topic. Every financial advisor I have talked to says save for retirement, borrow for college. That being said we did set up 529’s for our kids. It didn’t grow as well as we would have liked. We also had a policy that when they got birthday/christmas money they had to save half. My daughter is a sophmore at a state school in California and she did receive several small scholarships (which by the way can really add up). So far we have not had to borrow. She is living at home but still spends a lot of time on campus. She works part time and I feel she has a good sense to the value of getting her education having to spend her own money and working and having worked hard for scholarships.

  36. You can set up a 529 so that you have your name on it and have control of it, not your kids (don’t set it up as an UTMA). That way, anyone in your family (including you) can use the money for educational purposes (with your approval, of course). My understanding is that an account set up this way will have less of an impact on financial aid eligibility as well. In our state, up to $4200 of the contributions each year can be deducted from your state income taxes (for us, that ends up being worth about $1200 each year — a great, immediate return on our investment). That, combined with low investment costs and good returns make it a good option. Even if you don’t end up needing the money for education for some reason, the penalties for withdrawing it for other reasons are relatively low and only affect the income, not the original investment. You can also pass it off to anyone else in the family so you can save it for other kids, nieces/nephews, your own retraining, or even grandkids. 529’s are a great option for many people.

    As an adjunct instructor at the college level, I was alarmed to hear my students say, “My student loan came through! Now I can buy my camera–or climbing equipment–or take that road trip, etc.” Notice, I didn’t say never get loans, but students should use them for school only and be willing to forego luxuries.

    In that same vein, housing is often a hefty cost. While the college rooming experience is extremely important, going to a local community college for a semester or two or three can save a lot. Picking up some summer school or online credits can also be a savings.

    For a real BARGAIN, take AP or Concurrent Enrollment classes. Check your area and be sure the class credit will be accepted at your student’s intended university. Likewise, if a college student can recall the material for, say, American History, try testing out of it at his University. He/she will still have to pay a fee, but it’s typically cheaper than full tuition rates.

    I greatly admire parents who try to plan for at least part of the money and help out their college-aged children. As parents, we were counseled to encourage the use of student loans, but I regret it. Several of our children ended up deeply in debt. Graduation should be a time of liberation and new beginnings–not starting out with a yoke around ones neck.

    [Topic for another forum: I believe the advent of the “cheap” student loan spurred rising costs in higher ed.]

  38. This topic makes me sad, because I went to a small private liberal arts college and lived in the dorms all 4 years, and I absolutely loved the experience. But I don’t think my 3 kids will ever be able to have that unless they get some incredible scholarships. I was really fortunate that my college offered full tuition for one year for anyone who was a National Merit finalist (not just winner) based on PSAT scores, and then a tuition break for each year after that. My parents paid for my costs of living, I worked hard to graduate summa cum laude, and I only had to take out one small loan my last year. I also worked summers. I hope they can find similar offers in 12 years when my oldest reaches college age, but if not, I’m afraid it will be “live at home, go to community college”. That is a fine way to get an education, but I loved my dorm experience and I hope they can experience that for at least part of the time.

    I wonder if all the outrage over college costs will come to a head and things will change, either by the rise of alternative programs or some government intervention. I’m trying not to lose sleep over it in the meantime!

    1. I should also mention, on the topic of working the financial aid system, we were advised to open the 529s under grandparents’ ownership. That way it won’t show up under parental assets during financial aid calculations. And even though we don’t live in Utah, the accounts that my mom opened for my kids are the Utah ESP program because we too heard how good they are!

  39. My husband and I both paid for our college ourselves (graduated 2007/2008). We both had some academic scholarships, but we both worked. Now that we have a son we have been talking about what we should do for him in regards to college. I had to make a lot of sacrifices to attend (and pay for school). I worked full time and attending school full time. It was always work or studying over socializing. While I was going through college I was really jealous of my friends who got to have the true college experience. However, in the end I think I was better off. Those college years taught me how to manage my time, my money and delayed gratification. I think we’ll ultimately agree to pay for a certain amount of his college, and ask that he works while in college (requiring him to be financially responsible for some aspect of his education and living expenses).

  40. That article is depressing; how much do you need to make a month to be able to save for -college for each kid -retirement?
    I barely make over 2500 dollars a month, how is putting 1500 dollars aside doable?
    That’s just ridiculous.College is way too expensive and the college debt is massive.

    someone should do something.

  41. This topic has definitely been in my mind lately, as family members have been asking what to get my almost-one-year-old for Christmas and his birthday. My husband and I both received hefty scholarships and made up for any deficit with student loans and by working while in college. Our parents weren’t able to contribute anything. One thing we talk about a lot for our son–on the one hand, we really wish our parents could have helped us, and it would have been such a huge advantage to have graduated without student loans, but on the other hand, I think it really helped us grow up and taught us how to manage money. Many (though not all) people I knew who had their college paid for wasted a lot of the money and had to learn those lessons after college. How do we instill those same values and lessons in our kids while still encouraging and supporting them?

  42. I’m currently in college (my junior year). I attend a private liberal arts college, but due to a college-sponsored scholarship (full tuition), I am paying less than I would be paying at a state college, even if the state college gave a scholarship. My parents are paying for part of my college. They paid for my first two years (I still took out the subsidized loans and received a Pell Grant and TAP grant- from NY), and I am taking subsidized loans and paying about 1/3 of my costs of the last two years. I am an education major, which means grad school is something I HAVE to do. I am on my own for that. The truth is that, even with my parents helping out a lot, I will still have large amounts of debt when I graduate college (I’m estimating somewhere around $40,000). I have many friends whose parents are not helping out, who will owe over $100,000, some almost $200,000 despite receiving scholarships, working 20+ hours a week, and working summers. I recently read that in “At $10 an hour you’d have to work 1,250 hours to cover the UW’s $12,500 tuition (more, once you take out taxes). In a 12-week summer, that’s more than 100 hours a week.”. While it may have been possible to pay for college with little loans in 1980 by just working summers (or even summers and working while in college), today it is pretty much impossible. And minimum wage in most states is well below $10 an hour (in NY it just raised to $8/hr). Yup, it’s scary.

  43. I was blessed to have a 529 account set up by my grandparents (there was no way my parents would be able to afford to pay for school) and I can’t even imagine how I would have done school without it. I graduated debt free and am now using the leftovers for my Masters degree (with a few loans thrown in as well).

    I cannot say enough about how helpful any amount of money from family can be, it was the biggest gift my grandparents could have ever given me!

  44. I paid my way through college- as for our 5 children….this is what we did.

    We paid for everything as long as they were working hard and getting good grades.(because most of our children worked hard in High School and received scholarships…that helped with the cost)
    We did encourage them to get a job their second year…we didn’t pay for entertainment after their freshman year.
    If they got married while at college….they were then responsible for their own living cost…we just paid for school, if they went on to grad school they were on their own- 2 when on to finish grad school.

  45. Yes, this is a stress-inducing topic for many. We put aside money in a diversified stock market portfolio when our two boys were babies. The 80s were good to us. They both graduated from private liberal arts colleges with no financial aid and no debt. There was money left over so we have now put it in 529 accounts for their children (3 under four so far). We are optimistic that by the time the babies are in college it will be enough to cover their costs. We are advising our sons to save for THEIR grandchildren. This way, they will have 40+ years of investing power vs. 18.

  46. Oh my goodness your points on this are so right-on! I’m in Canada, but post-grad school still isn’t cheap and we do have some wonderful education saving funds available to us which sound similar to your 529 (though not anywhere near a recommended contribution of $1500/month – yikes!).

    My husband and I both paid our own ways (with some help here and there) and were still paying it all off into our early thirties when we had our daughter. We started saving for her from day 1 and expect to be able to pay for a good chunk of her education expenses – we put away what we can knowing that she won’t miss that one extra toy, but will appreciate the financial help she receives down the line. We’re also not shy about replying to friends and family who ask that an ed-fund contribution is top of the gift list (and many, thankfully, do take that suggestion).

  47. Bravo Teresa! Some of you talk about the pride of working to help pay for your college education, but let me discuss a different view of the value of working during the college years. I am a career counselor for a large metropolitan university and every day I see employers who are primarily interested in hiring students who have had an “internship” or some work experience related to their major. It doesn’t matter if it is a humanities, business or engineering major, those with practical work experience prior to graduation are the most sought-after candidates. Therefore, working does far more than contribute to expenses; it contributes to skill sets, maturity, and sophistication about the world of work. I’ve actually seen employers shy away from students with high GPA’s and virtually no related work experience. College students who work are far better prepared to enter the real world than those who had the luxury to spend all their time studying because someone else was footing the bill.

  48. I am from a family of six children. Dad was a chemist (PhD) and mom was a homemaker who learned to read, write and do basic math but there was rarely formal school classes where she lived (island off the coast of Ireland, post WWII.) Both of my parents valued education immensely. To send us to college we all made a deal. We would give my parents half of whatever we earned from the moment we started working. When I was nine I got my first babysitting job and earned 50 cents. I handed over a quarter! From age 9 to 21 I split my weekly wages in half to pay my college tuition. Books, food, etc. was on our own. We also earned scholarships and everyone worked through college. Handing over my wages each week made me feel fully invested in my education- as I was paying for it before I even got there. All 6 of us graduated college and 5 of 6 have graduate degrees (which we each paid for ourselves!)

    Great topic! I am also very anxious about paying for my own children’s college education as we just finished 6 years each of primary school tuition. I have not saved much yet for college but I am knee-deep in grant proposals and scholarship ideas. One child also plans to do her undergrad work in Ireland which is slightly less expensive that the US. They will also contribute the 1/2-wages model once they start working.

  49. I have 3 children and we plan on paying in-state tuition for our children for 4 years. However, if they choose to attend an out-of-state or private school we will pay the in-state tuition (say $10,000) and they will be responsible for the balance (part-time jobs, scholarships, grants). We will discourage our children from taking out student loans. There is a massive student loan crisis- another topic for discussion. This is our plan but who knows what will actually happen!
    Both my husband and my parents lucked out. We both received full scholarships and graduated in 4 years. For our graduate degrees we cash flowed them. We are blessed to not have student loans.

  50. This topic is great because my kids absolutely must go to college. And money shouldn’t stop anyone from going. I am always irked when I hear that someone didn’t go to college because they didn’t have the money. It happens all over the country where kids believe they can’t “afford” college. There is always a way. My parents had nothing for me & my siblings for college. My tuition is paid for with work-study, very small grants & government student loans (very low interest rates). My graduate studies had zero stipend, so I once again had loans & work-study. That’s 8 years of college & lots of debt, but after years of repayment, I am done. Colleges also come in many price brackets. We are trying our best to save up for our 3 kids, but I also know that if I could do it, then they can too.

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