Who's afraid of paying for college?
Nothing makes parents cringe like the prospect of shouldering a college tuition bill.
NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - What scares parents most when it comes to the safety of their family? Terrorism? No. Crime? Negative. Violent video games? The environment? Not even close.
A recent survey asked 300 parents of school-age children to rank a list of fears in order of which inspired the most horror. Ahead of all the above, believe it or not, was the high cost of college tuition.
Surprised? Not me. I've used more than my share of ink writing about college savings over the past 15 years, and one thing I (and pretty much every financial expert) have advised is that you should max out on your retirement accounts before you even start saving for college. There's no financial aid for retirement, I've said more than once, but there's plenty for college. The most common response is, "I know, but still...."
As rational adults, we understand from a dollars-and-cents perspective that this advice is perfectly correct. But as parents, we aren't quite comfortable with it.
"At the end of the day people will lend you money for college. That's what our adviser tells us. And I get that," says Nancy Nagramada Pedersen, 34, a teacher in the Bay Area. "But still, it doesn't seem right to neglect college."
Then there's the fact that costs at public colleges average $12,127 a year, according to the College Board, and at private institutions they can top $40,000.
So how do you reconcile the two conflicting forces tugging at your savings and your conscience? I set out to find a middle ground, because putting even a token amount toward college can do wonders for your psychological well-being. Follow a few of these tips and you'll be able to focus on your retirement, like everyone tells you to, while getting rid of that nagging feeling that you're neglecting your children. Oh, and you'll actually be saving for college too.
Don't snub small payouts
Six years ago I opened an account with Upromise, a rewards program that can put money into your tax-deferred college savings account as a thank-you for shopping at certain retailers. It's free money that doesn't come out of your pocket.
Without even taking full advantage of the program - I routinely shop online but sometimes forget to go through the Upromise portal - I've still managed to rack up about $1,000 in my account. I did nothing for this money.
And a new Upromise competitor, Littlegrad.com, may be even better because it doesn't require you to shop through a Web portal to get your rebates. Once you sign up, the rebates find you. I just opened an account.
Today 1.5 million students who would likely have qualified for Pell Grants - a form of financial aid that doesn't have to be repaid - don't even bother to apply, according to the American Council on Education. (Go to studentaid.ed.gov to see if your child is eligible.) And that's not all the money that's being left on the table.
Kalman Chany, author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke," notes that many people fumble their chances for more aid by waiting to apply until after they've done their taxes or after their children have been accepted to a college. By that time, many work/study and other campus-based programs are tapped out.
At virtually all schools, the earliest financial aid deadline falls before acceptance letters are even mailed out.
Bring kids into the loop
As early as their freshman year of high school, talk to your children about whether paying for college will fall on your shoulders, theirs or a combination. A lot of kids cruise through high school assuming there's a magic check somewhere that will cover their education.
"It helped me immensely to know that my family couldn't pay for my whole education," says Ben Kaplan, publisher of ScholarshipCoach.com, who was awarded $90,000 in scholarships when he was applying to college in the late 1990s.
It was only because he understood his parents' situation that he thought to find and apply for aid on his own.
Use a Roth IRA
If you're eligible for a Roth IRA (and you are if your income doesn't exceed $160,000 for married couples filing jointly or $110,000 for singles), make this contribution immediately after you exhaust any 401(k) matching dollars.
The Roth, unlike other retirement accounts, allows contributions to be withdrawn at any time (without taxes or penalty, since taxes have already been paid) and earnings to be withdrawn without penalty if you're putting them toward education. Essentially, it's an account you can use for retirement or college.
Switch gears for a few years
When calculating eligibility, financial aid officers won't count money that's already in your IRAs, 401(k) or other retirement accounts. But they will count money you put in during the years those aid applications are being filed - that is, from junior year of high school through junior year of college.
"Their rationale is if you have discretionary funds available right now, they should be going toward college," says Kaplan.
During those years, choose college over retirement. There's a sound financial argument, and it'll ease your conscience.
Get a last-minute 529
Let's say, despite all good intentions, you never contribute dollar one to a 529 college savings account. Opening one while your child is in college may still help from a tax perspective.
In New York, for example, you can write a $5,000 check to a 529, take a $5,000 deduction on your state income tax return and pay the college $5,000. For a couple (with each spouse contributing $5,000), that could mean savings north of $400.
Research has shown that success in life has more to do with overall ambition than where you go to school.
That's a point you may want to make to a child who's deciding between the Ivy League (and the six-figure loan that will go with it) and a public school with a largely free ride. The Ivys can wait. After all, there's always grad school.
College funding 101: Don't get ripped off
The fear of high college tuition bills shouldn't lead you to shell out for something you don't need
The pitch "Pay us to search our vast database and win you a scholarship - and we'll apply for you!"
The truth Generally, you shouldn't have to pay to find or apply for any scholarship. Plenty of web sites have searchable databases that you can scour for scholarships and grants absolutely free.
The pitch "From the U.S. government: Act by midnight or you'll miss out on consolidating your student loan at below-market rates."
The truth This isn't from Uncle Sam, it's from a marketer. Student loan rates do go up on July 1, however, so now's the time to consolidate. Also, rates are set by the government, not your consolidator.
The pitch "We'll submit your FAFSA for just $79.99 - don't worry about a thing."
The truth For starters, submitting a FAFSA is free - hello, it's called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This pitch likely came from a web site that had a URL suspiciously close to that of the official site, such as fafsa.com or fafsa.us.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her at email@example.com.