How much should you save for college?

If you’ve ever wondered how much a parent should save for college, Mark Kantrowitz spells it out in his latest piece which, not surprisingly, includes all the math to back up his claims. The only potential downside is that it’s pitched to new parents who have the luxury of saving and earning compound interest for the next 18 years. If you have that kind of time, it’s a compelling argument to see that saving even $50-$250 a month will add up to a nice college nest egg. But if your student is in high school and you haven’t saved as much as you wish you had, the math can be a little disheartening.

If you’re in that latter camp, I’d make five recommendations.

1. Pay the knowledge forward.
Forward this article to someone you know who has or will soon have a new baby. It’s a generous thing to do and they’ll probably thank you for it even more profusely someday than they do today.

2. Don’t lose hope.
Many parents compare the cost of college to their cash on hand and become so discouraged they actually do nothing. But doing nothing doesn’t get you closer to your goal of paying for the right college. Save what you can. You may lament that you didn’t start earlier, but probably won’t look back and say, “I wish I’d saved less money for college.”

3. Don’t rule out colleges that seem too expensive.
If you can find colleges that are in your price range even if you don’t receive financial aid, that gives you more control over your student’s college destiny. But don’t immediately eliminate colleges based on sticker price alone. The formulas are complicated, and the actual award you receive can take other factors into account like the academic strength of your student. Bottom line: you don’t actually know what that college will cost if your student is accepted. So curate a smart list of schools with your counselor’s endorsement. But don’t cross schools that otherwise fit off your list just because the cost is more than you believe you can afford.

4. Don’t shield your student.
Many parents want to shield their kids from the economic realities of attending college, and I understand that instinct. But I still believe it’s good for parents to have honest, open discussions with their kids about college costs. Having that conversation now, however unpleasant it might be, is much better than having it later if your student has an offer of admission in hand but your family can’t afford the school.

5. Apply for financial aid.
Some of us have a tendency to shy away from topics we’d rather not think about. I’ve certainly done it. But the families who actually apply for financial aid are the ones who get the most financial aid. Which camp do you want to be in? Don’t make assumptions that you won’t qualify, don’t avoid the topic, and most importantly, don’t let fear or shame or anything else deter you from applying. Apply for aid and let the financial aid officers do their job.

One of my core college planning principles is to focus on the parts of the process that you can control. You can’t control the financial choices or circumstances of the past. But you can make choices today that you’ll feel good about tomorrow.