Finding the Balance in College Savings
Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none. ~Albert Einstein
This is one of the inspirational quotes I have pasted around my desk and home reminding me to live in the moment. I believe that is something we could all do more. And yet I am aware of the tension between living in the moment and planning for the future. I spend a lot of time in my job, as Director of Early College Planning at MEFA, encouraging families to plan. Planning seems the opposite of living in the moment and yet I know this is important too. What is the right balance? Can we do both or does one always suffer?
This struggle around living in the moment and planning for the future feels pronounced in my life these days. My son is a high school junior and fully immersed in all that junior year brings — tough courses, soccer, PSAT, basketball, friends, SAT prep, baseball, visiting colleges, (ahem) relationships, making the college list, finding a summer job, preparing for the admissions process. How can I best support him to have a great high school experience while also helping him to be ready for the next phase of life? It's a constant struggle. And I have the same conundrum about college financing. I advise families to save all they can toward paying for college. So what does that mean for me? It means that on a random weeknight when I take my kids to Panera Bread, I get a little pang of guilt that says, "Julie, you should go home and make a meal and save the $25 in the college account." But then I realize I want to have a relaxed conversation with them after dance lessons and basketball practice and some nights that is what works best.
Like most things in life, there isn't one answer. Finding that balance isn't easy and the scales will tip differently for every family. For me, I've found that having a plan has allowed me to feel less anxious. I don't stress about paying for college every day (maybe just once a month :) ). Once I started saving for college, I never stopped. However, there were times when I adjusted the amount I was saving up or down. I could be saving more but it would come at the cost of the here and now. I don't want to abandon the progress I've made toward enjoying the moment.
Julie's tips for staying cool and balanced about the college plan (gleaned from 25 years of helping families and students finance higher education and shared with you in the present moment):
- Start saving as soon as possible. The more time you have to save, the less impact to your day to day.
- Save automatically. Set up an amount and a timeframe you decide upon and have money go directly from your bank account or pay check to your college savings. This way you have peace of mind that you are doing the right thing but you don't have to think about it as often.
- Involve others in your plan. If a friend or relative wants to give a gift to your child, ask for a small amount of money toward the college fund. It is easy for others to contribute to the account.
- Involve your child in the plan. Early on when I could grab the moment, I had a comprehensive conversation with my son about the college plan so he would have a good overview of all the pieces. That helps me to not talk about it every day. We spend many days just talking about a paper he is writing, rehashing his last game, or about his and his friends love of Chipotle. We talked about finances too. I use the words choices and options a lot. He knows that a lot is in his control. Better grades can translate into more admissions choices and possibly more merit scholarships. He knows we will all work together to make a good decision and help him through college.
- Educate yourself about the college admissions and financial aid process. Friends say to me, "Julie, you'll be all set with the admissions and financial aid process." I tell them, "I have to go through the same process. The main difference between me and others is that I have one less worry. I don't worry that I might be missing something." Connect with MEFA as a source for trusted information about the process. school counselors at the high school can be very helpful to your student. Start early with this as well.
What about you? Do you feel the same struggle? How are you finding a balance with the college process?