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It’s Never Too Early to Start: Planning College Expenses In Middle School

College can seem far off when your teen is in middle school. But consider this: in just five to seven years, you’ll be writing a check for the first semester of freshman year.

Will you be ready for the cost of college? If you’re not sure, now’s an excellent time to review your savings plan. Haven’t started saving yet? It’s not too late. Here’s what the experts recommend for your college savings check-up.

Start Planning For College In Middle School

1. Set a Monthly Goal

The big question: How much should you save? It depends, says Tim Gorrell, executive director of the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority. Start by establishing a goal. Are you saving for an in-state public university? A private college? Or perhaps a community college or trade school? What will those different kinds of institutions cost you? And how much of those costs are you willing—and able—to cover? You’ll need to answer these questions to come up with a monthly savings goal.

“Some parents decide they’ll save up for the cost of an in-state public university, while others may really want to attend a private school,” says Gorrell. “Setting goals helps you focus on how to tailor your savings. You can always change your goal later on.”

Online college savings calculators can help. For example, the calculator at Savingforcollege.com uses your annual income to provide an estimate of your costs at four different kinds of institutions (after financial aid). You can then see how much you’ll have to save each month to cover those costs.

You don’t need to save 100 percent of your costs before college starts. Most families pay for their share of college costs with a combination of savings, current income, and loans. Still, an important goal is to keep debt as low as possible.

“For every $10,000 borrowed, you should expect a monthly payment of about $100-$125,” explains Gorrell. “You want your student to graduate from college and enter a career in which they can thrive, without having to worry about paying back hundreds of dollars a month in loans.”

2. Start (Or Step Up) Your Savings

Once you have a monthly goal, then it’s time to start saving—or bring your current savings into line.

An easy and effective way to save is a 529 college savings account. You can think of a 529 like an IRA, but for college. Contributions to these accounts grow tax-free. Withdrawals are also tax-free, so long as the money is used for a qualified education expense, such as tuition, room and board, books, supplies, and even computer equipment.

What’s more, if you invest in your own state’s 529 plan, you may save on your state income tax. “In Ohio, residents can deduct up to $4,000 per beneficiary per year,” explains Gorrell.

Most 529s allow account holders to set up monthly withdrawals from their checking account. This automates the savings process and makes it more likely you’ll stick with your goals.

Above all, say the experts, don’t beat yourself up if you’ve yet to start saving for college or haven’t saved enough.

“Families that put off saving for their child’s college education until the child is in middle school are more common than you would think,” says Mark C. McKaig, a partner with Centurion Wealth Management in McLean, Virginia. “It’s not as if these families wake up one day and say, ‘Holy cow, we better start saving for college.’ On the contrary, most families realize the need to begin saving early; it’s just that for many reasons they never got around to implementing a savings plan.”

3. Talk with Your Teen Early and Often

Now’s also an important time to start talking to your student about the costs of college, including what your family will likely be able to afford.

“If you start having that conversation in middle school and continue through high school, it’s much easier to manage expectations when it comes time to apply to college,” says Gorrell.

Families that don’t talk honestly about college affordability run the risk of their student applying to—and falling in love with—a school that’s out of reach.

“A lot of parents have a hard time saying, ‘We can’t afford that school,’” says Gorrell. “But if you’ve been having these conversations all along, your kid is more likely to have realistic expectations.”

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.