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Higher Education Planning: How We’re Helping Our Kids Graduate College Debt-Free


The future cost of college absolutely terrifies me.

By some horribly scary estimates, I’ve found the cost for my 9 and 7-year-old to attend an in-state public university in 2030 and 2032 now exceeds $400,000 for 4 full years. With the cost of college rising by between 5-8% per year, I see how this insane number could actually be real.

As a family, we do have a goal of helping our kids graduate student debt free. This goal will not become a reality through saving alone. It would be virtually impossible for our family to save away this problem.

Here’s our loose plan to help our kids start off their working lives with zero debt.

529 College Savings Plan

Right after our children were born, we started a 529 College Savings Plan for each of them.  Knowing that compound interest favors those who invest early, we knew we needed to hit the “go” button as soon as possible.

These accounts allow parents to invest money for their kids’ future college expenses with tax advantages. Parents contribute to a 529 plan and in some cases, depending on the state, their contributions are state-tax-deductible. Also, if the money is used for qualified education expenses, earnings in a 529 grow federal tax free.

Right now, we have around $80,000 saved up between our two kids accounts. If all goes well, we may have around $160k-$200k by the time they reach college.

Yes, that won’t be enough, but it’s a start.

Chore & Reward System

When our kids were old enough to help around the house, we started a chore and reward system to encourage contribution. Being a part of our family means that everyone chips in where and when they can.

Some our kids chores have been things like:

Emptying garbage cans
Putting away silverware
Feeding the cats
Refilling the bird feeder
Taking the garbage cans to the street
And much more

When our kids complete their chores, they are rewarded with a dollar equivalent to their age. My 9-year-old gets $9 per week and my 7-year-old gets $7 per week.

They use their money to learn the importance of spending, saving, giving and investing.

But the real reward we hope they receive is the lesson that in order to meet a goal, you have to put in the work. And when it comes to paying for the cost of college, we’re hoping this work ethic and spirit of family contribution rises to the surface … because it’s gonna take the whole family to make this student debt free future a reality.


By some estimates, there are more than 1.7 million private scholarships and fellowships available, with a total value of more than $7.4 billion.

I’d love to get some of that money!

As our kids get closer to their teen years, we’re going to carve out a “Scholarship Sunday” where they fill out applications at home in hopes of earning some of this money.

Depending on how all of this parenting business goes over the next 8-10 years, we may have to incentivize them to participate. One great thing about a 529 plan is that if your child receives scholarship money, you can withdraw that scholarship amount from your 529 without penalty.

So with that tidbit of information, maybe we’re splitting the scholarship 50/50 with our kids? Talk about incentive to keep filling out applications!

Read More: 7 Must-Read Financial Aid Research Tips For High School Seniors

Community College

To really save on the cost of college, we could have our kids attend their first two years at our local Community College. This way, they can live at home and get used to “adulting” while getting their college credits at a fraction of the cost.

And when I say a fraction, I mean a fraction.

Today, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for a 2-year community college in-state experience is $3,440. While the average annual cost of tuition and fees for a public in-state 4-year university is $9,410.

My wife and I have discussed this. Two years of community college and then two years to finish off the degree at their in-state university of choice. This could be another way to make this student debt free life possible.

Working in High School

Remember that family contribution stuff I was talking about earlier?

Working in high school will be a requirement for our kids. My wife and I both worked in high school and, looking back, it was good for us.

Getting a job in high school does so many things for you as a young adult:

Builds confidence
Helps you decide what work you don’t like
Hones your personal communication skills
Allows you to have more money (to learn with, play with and make mistakes with)
Gets you to understand that with hard work comes reward

Through this action, our kids may need to save up some of that money from their high school work to pay for college. If going to a 4-Year University is important to them and we don’t have enough for them to attend without loans, they can contribute to that goal.

Working in College

College students who work 15-20 hours per week at college actually perform better than those who don’t work at all. With this rationale, it’ll be important for our kids to work a moderate amount of hours while in college.

This moderate amount of work can contribute to the overall cost of college including tuition, books, laptops, food, housing and entertainment. That entertainment budget can be quite large depending on the student too (speaking from personal experience)!

Just like working in high school, our kids will gain important life skills by working in college. These skills will set them up for a bright future.

Final Thoughts on Higher Education Planning

Hoping that the cost of college will go down isn’t part of our plan. And hoping that the government will come in and make college more affordable is also not part of our plan.

We’re not going to fight it if either one of these events occur, but we’re not waiting around for them to happen.

We feel confident that by using these 6 strategies our kids will experience a life of student debt freedom. It’s going to take the whole family to make that a reality though. The responsibility of paying for college does not rest on us alone as parents. Our kids will need to be highly involved.

For now, we’ll let our 529 college saving plan do most of the heavy lifting while we let our 9 and 7-year old focus on more important things like soccer games and Pokemon cards.

You can use Personal Capital’s Education Planner to take the guesswork out of financially preparing for your kids’ college education. The free tool helps you:

Understand and compare the costs of a specific college or overall in-state vs. out-of-state college costs
Determine your annual savings needs while you track your progress
Model the impact on your annual retirement spending
See how hypothetical changes to education goals impact your overall portfolio and retirement readiness

Start Planning with Personal Capital

Keep Learning

How to Pay for Your Child’s College Education

How to Save Money on College Visits

Student Loan Forgiveness: How It Works & Available Programs Overview

Guide to Education Tax Credits & Deductions

Personal Capital compensates the author of this article as a freelance writer. Author is not a client of Personal Capital Advisors Corporation. Compensation not to exceed $500. The content contained in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to constitute legal, tax, accounting or investment advice. You should consult a qualified legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation. Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.

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