There will be exceptions, of course, but your kid is unlikely to be one of them. So here, in my ongoing “rules of thumb” series (previous editions include retirement and cars), are a few guidelines about saving for college:
Save yourself first. No one’s going to lend you money for retirement, so that has to remain your top priority–hard as that is for parents to hear. Think of it this way: by saving for yourself first, you’re reducing the odds that you’ll have to move in with your kid in old age. Trust me, she’ll appreciate that someday.
But save something. Even if it’s just $25 or $50 a month to start, putting something away for college helps solidify it as a goal–and anything you can save will reduce your child’s future debt load (since most financial aid is actually loans, not grants or scholarships).
Use a good 529 plan. Money saved in 529s is tax free when used for college education costs, and most of these state-run plans are pretty good these days, thanks to better investment options and lower fees. Morningstar runs an annual list of the best and worst plans.
The more you make, the more you’re expected to save. Federal financial aid formulas aren’t adjusted for regional differences in cost of living. There’s no exception made for families that have experienced hard financial times in the past. The higher your income, the more the formula expects you will have saved…to the point where someone with an income over $100,000 could be expected to fork over a third of it for college costs. There are ways to reduce college costs, but knowing the reality of financial aid formulas will help you to understand the maxim that “if you CAN save for college, you probably SHOULD.”