I've mentioned before that my parents did not have any money set aside for my college education. I don’t blame them. I was the third of seven kids in a firmly middle-class family. Keeping all of us fed and in good health must have been a major financial undertaking. I spent many years working my way through college and eventually took out a few student loans to finish up my last few semesters.
My husband's parents didn't help him pay for college, either. His parents prioritized their retirement savings—as they should. He worked all summer and during the semester to pay for tuition, books, and other expenses. He made it through college debt-free but lived on condiment sandwiches for most of his college years because he couldn't afford groceries. Lest you think I'm exaggerating, he literally ate condiment sandwiches. He must've developed a taste for it because to this day, ketchup and mustard make up a large segment of our grocery budget.
For these reasons, we started saving for our son's college education shortly after he was born.
Virtually everyone thinks saving for college is important, but according to the College Savings Foundation, just over half are actually putting money away for their child's education. Less than half have more than $5,000 saved. With the projected cost of a four-year degree from a public in-state university nearing $100,000 by 2033 (nearly $325,000 at a private college), there is not much time to cover the gap.
Meanwhile, the student loan debt crisis is being blamed for the slow growth of the US economy, since students graduating with mountains of debt aren't buying homes and cars and the other major purchases that drive economic growth.
There are plenty of arguments to be made against paying for your child's education, including some studies that suggest that students who pay their own way do better in school. Based on my own experience, this rings true. My college boyfriend's parents paid his way through college and insisted he not work during the semester so he could concentrate on school. His concentration was more focused on the nightclub than the classroom and he barely eked out a four-year degree in six years. We fought often about his lack of interest in the education that was being handed to him on a silver platter while I struggled to pay my own way.
Our parents are quick to remind us that we don't owe our son a college education. That may be true, but we believe that saving for his education ensures that our son won't graduate from college deeply in debt before he even starts his career. We want to raise him to be financially independent, but one of the largest barriers to achieving financial independence is the rising cost of college tuition and student loan debt.
I believe we're putting the right financial priorities ahead of college savings: we have an emergency fund and we are not prioritizing college savings over our own retirement. According to this college cost calculator, we'll have enough to cover about 50% of a four-year degree at an in-state public university. (Bear down!) He'll probably have to try to get scholarships and work a few hours a week during college, and that's just fine.
Interestingly enough, both of our parents are now making regular contributions to our son's 529 plan, so I guess they believe in saving for college after all.