As the mother of a toddler, most of my fellow parent friends have children who are on the young side as well. But when the topic of affording a college education came up during several recent conversations, I was a bit surprised to learn that other parents don’t seem nearly as worried about it as me.
“We’re so many years away from college,” was one friend’s response.
“We’ll save more when we can,” said another blithely.
And my favorite: “We’re hoping our parents will somehow help—though we’re not necessarily counting on it.”
When I applied to college, my choices were very limited due to financial constraints. Though I chose a state school to save on costs and worked throughout college, I still had to take out loans. I’m more than grateful for the friends I made during college, but even to this day, I can’t help but wonder whether my professional career would’ve taken a different trajectory had I gone to a more academically impressive institution. And during college, I did feel at times that I’d sold myself short by passing on my top choices and basing my decision on finances alone. My situation was by no means terrible, but I want my son to have more options than I did, and so I’ve been trying my hardest to start saving for his education early on. But it’s not easy. Owning a home is expensive. My husband and I live modestly, rarely go out, and haven’t taken a big vacation in years, but we still have bills—a lot of bills—that need to get paid before we can put extra money in the college fund.
If it sounds like I’m complaining, I promise, I’m not. I’m grateful for the fact that we live in a nice house in a good area. It just stinks that college has gotten so pricey.
Then again, maybe it’s me. Like I said, my fellow toddler parent friends don’t seem nearly as concerned, and perhaps they’ve got the right attitude—that they’ll do what they can, but won’t sacrifice family vacations, home improvements, or daily luxuries to pay for something that’s so far off in the future. And then there are those who genuinely want to start saving for college but simply don’t have the means—either they’re living on a single salary without much wiggle room, or have too many other expenses that take priority.
The bottom line, I’m realizing, is that paying for college is great if you can do it, but not everybody can, and there’s probably only so much you should be willing to forego in order to achieve that goal.
My husband and I, for example, have talked about finishing our basement, which would make our living space much more comfortable. But every time we get an estimate, I can’t help but think that the money could instead be used to pay for a year of college. (After all, these days you’ll pay about $10,000 per year for in-state tuition and over $30,000 for a private university, and that doesn’t even include room and board.) And if I’m being honest, I do the same thing when it comes to family getaways, entertainment, and even clothing purchases. (I mean, I’m all for the five-dollar Target attire, but should I really feel guilty about the occasional splurge for a 40-dollar sweater?)
Going forward, I think I need to stop questioning the decision to spend money on things that make my husband, son, and me, happy. After all, college isn’t everything. I’d still like for us to save what we can, but I’m not willing to sacrifice happy memories from years of family vacations for a fancy education that my son may or may not wish to pursue. And when it comes to things like finishing our basement, I can easily argue that a spacious playroom will give my son years of enjoyment that you can’t necessarily put a price on.
For us, our approach to saving for college will have to mimic the evolving strategy we’ve employed ever since we became parents: We’re simply going to try our hardest and hope for the best. And if anyone out there has any advice or savings strategies to share, I’m all ears.