Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Writer & Blogger

My name is Melissa and I’m a longtime admission professional, personal finance writer, editor  and parent of two (very!) busy kiddos. I couldn’t make it all happen without my husband, Steve.

I hatched my site because I’ve heard so many head-scratching questions from parents. I’ve journeyed in the footsteps of hundreds of families, trekked to dozens of college fairs and even weighed the (billions?) of college savings options for my own two kiddos.

How to Save for College AND for Other Things You Really Want

by | Jun 23, 2020 | Financial aid and scholarships | 0 comments

I vividly remember working with a student whose dad said, “Whaddya mean, it costs $XX,XXX for my daughter to go to college? I’m not giving up golf and vacations!”

He was joking, he was joking. (I think.)

At any rate, I know that on some level, just about everyone can relate. You may think, “When do I get to do what I want to do? When my kids are out of college? Uh, no thanks. I’ll be what, 70 by then?”

Of course kids are a blessing and you’re willing to sacrifice for them.

But is it possible to have it all? Is it possible to pay for college and help your kids through a very expensive part of life? Without taking out oodles of loans?

Yes, it is! Yes, it is. You can do this — even if college is coming at you at 60 miles per hour. It just might take some creativity and careful planning (and maybe a side hustle to boost your bank account). Here’s how it can be done.

How to save for college and other things you really want? Yeah, good question, right? Here's what you need to know.
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Prioritize

My husband has been hankering after a garage for the better part of a decade. Actually, I take that back. He wants a shop. A place to store his tools, a car project and a boat. 

Do you need a lot of things all at once? Maybe your husband wants a new car and a shop, you want a new kitchen and you want to pay for college all at once. Life is short, right? You deserve it. You’ve worked hard all your life. But have you asked yourself what you really need? 

Consider these statistics, directly from fee.org

  1. The average American home contains 300,000 items.
  2. One out of four houses with two-car garages is so stuffed a car can’t even fit in the garage. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m one of the four!)
  3. Each American throws away over 68 pounds of clothing per year.
  4. Americans spend about $1.2 trillion a year on nonessential items.

I’m not saying that the “things” you want aren’t essential. It’s a great exercise to decide your priorities and figure out what’s essential. I know from experience that prioritizing what you want is easier said than done.

How to Evaluate Your Priorities

My husband’s shop isn’t done and he’s getting increasingly nervous about the lack of time he has to build it. In fact, I can almost hear his train of thought: “It’s almost already July and the cement floor isn’t poured yet… When am I going to build the thing because it’s going to be December before we know it? The truck will have to go into storage somewhere else because there’s already snow on the ground… AAAH!”

Poor guy.

But in the grand scheme of things, the shop doesn’t have to be built now. In fact, he could wait another year or two if he really needed to. However, he wants it now so he has enough time to work on a car (which could take years). He wants to be able to have it ready so he can teach our son all about restoring cars as well.

So, there’s a bigger priority in the works here — son and dad time. Priorities go deeper than wants. In fact, they drive to the very heart of our most important values.

How do the things you want align with your priorities and values? Here are some examples. You may want to:

  • Install a pool to spend more time with family.
  • Build a bigger dining room to entertain and encourage closer friendships.
  • Help your child with college so he or she’s debt free after college.
  • Go on an anniversary trip to become closer to your spouse or partner.

So, what are yours? Getting clear on your priorities can often help you decide how to put your money into pieces and parts that achieve those goals.  

Use Your Money to Fulfill Your Priorities

Let’s say you decide your priorities are:

  1. Paying for college.
  2. Building a new shop.
  3. Painting your cabinets (instead of getting a new kitchen). 
  4. The car will have to wait. 

The reality is, we all have a finite supply of money and lots and lots of buckets. 

When you discuss your priorities with your family, maybe you agree that your priority is to make sure your children don’t start their working years in debt and that you want to be able to help them pay for college.

Maybe you decide the full kitchen upgrade is a want, not a need. You can cook just as well and entertain friends in the kitchen you have. Furthermore, you do some research and realize that a full kitchen upgrade won’t give you a great return on your investment when you sell down the road.

You realize you can get along with the van you have. You realize your jealousy of your next-door neighbor’s shiny new van was getting the best of you. (Due to the large scrape on the front bumper from backing out of the garage too quickly. Yes, this is coming from personal experience. My van actually does have a recent large scrape and rock-chipped windshield.) 

On the other hand, what if your priorities are different? Let’s say your main priority is to spend more time road tripping with your family. In that case, the van may have gone in the first priority slot and paying for college might move to the second slot on the list, like this:

  1. Buy a new car.
  2. Save for college.
  3. Build a shop.
  4. Paint the kitchen cabinets.

Determine How You’ll Juggle Various Goals

Once you determine your priorities, figure out how you’ll get them done. Have some fun with this! It can be like a fun puzzle to determine how you’ll get to those things you really want. Here are some ideas of how you can go about doing it. 

  1. Estimate how much money you’ll need for each goal you’d like to achieve. It might cost more over time for things like college but there are lots of calculators that can help you estimate how much it will cost later on. 
  2. Ask yourself how much of your savings you’ll need and when you’ll need it. Do you need the money soon? If so, you’ll need to organize your finances so you can save the money more quickly.
  3. Create an online savings schedule that aligns with your paydays. Decide how much you’ll swoop into a savings account immediately after you get paid. If you do it regularly and often, it’ll become a habit and you won’t miss that money. (Promise!)
  4. Don’t forget to create a separate account. You don’t want to spend the money you’ve earmarked for other goals, so make sure it goes into a different account. It also keeps you going! When you see how much money is in your “other goals” account, it’s inspiring.
  5. Treat this extra savings like a bill. In other words, treat money for your extra savings as if it’s a required payment like a utility bill. Make sure the payments are automatic so they come out of your paycheck right away, every time.
  6. Ask yourself whether you need a side hustle. You might need another source of income to float your project. What are your talents? Can you brainstorm extra ways to make money? It can help you hit your goals much faster if you place all of your extra money in your savings account to reach your goals.

Tips for College Savings

Guess what? The tips for saving for college are the same as the steps listed above for saving for other goals. 

What might be a little trickier is determining how much to save. This can get confusing because you might not be sure what type of college your child will attend — community college, state university, liberal arts college, etc. 

In other words, how much goes in the bucket?

The rule of thumb is to save as much as you can. 

Even if your child only has two years of high school left, it’s worth saving as much as you can. You might not want to sock a lot into a regular savings account because there are other types of accounts that offer tax benefits. You can consider channeling that money into the following types of accounts: 

  • Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or Education IRAs: These are tax-deferred accounts with earnings and withdrawals which may be free from federal income tax if used for qualified education expenses. Contribution limits apply.
  • 529 Plan: 529 plans allow you to invest for your child’s education or even your own. You can make sizeable contributions every year and also shift portions of assets in a 529 to future generations.
  • UTMA or UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act): An UTMA or UGMA offers a way to transfer securities to a minor. You’ll call it an UTMA or UGMA, depending on which state your child resides. 

There are various pluses and minuses with each type of plan, and it’s a great idea to consult with a financial advisor about which type of plan is best for you. Your best bet is to make it automatic, just like you do with your other savings accounts. (Who knew you could save for a kitchen just as effectively as you can saving for college?)

Staying on Track

Part of staying motivated is making sure you check your progress. Let’s say you funnel each of your savings streams into different accounts. Keep a fun tally system on the bulletin board in your office or on a spreadsheet so you know exactly how much money you’ve saved at any given time. It keeps you motivated and excited as you see those numbers climb. You can go old school with a Post-it Note and jot down all your numbers. You can also use a tool like Personal Capital or Mint to track your spending and savings. (I use both.)

You might not be able to save as much money as you want if you have several goals on your plate. You might feel like you’re getting nowhere fast if you’re saving for four different items. The buckets fill up a lot more slowly when you’re trying to funnel your finite extra income into four different streams.

So, how do you stay motivated when it seems like there are only pennies in the bottoms of four different buckets? Great question. Why not tackle your smallest payment first? 

For some reason, this reminds me of the Debt Snowball method. The Debt Snowball method means you tackle your smallest debt amount first. You get an instant win by paying that off, then move on to your larger debt amounts. 

In other words, save for one thing (the smallest amount), then the next largest amount, and so on. That way, you only tackle one or two things at a time and you get quick wins along the way. 

How to Get Through It When You’re Over It

Sigh. Saving for things often loses its excitement really fast. I remember a long time ago, one of my friends was really gung-ho about saving for a new car and I was really excited for her. She’d mapped out a robust savings plan for how she’d have her beautiful new (used) car in a year. 

A week later, I went over to her house and a new car was sitting in the driveway. 

She’d caved and gotten a loan. “I just couldn’t wait anymore,” she told me. “I wanted it now.”

It’s easy to take out loans for the things you really want, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s necessary — you may need to take out a loan because you’ve got no other choice. What else do you do when you don’t have the money and your car breaks down? What else do you do when your child’s ready for college and you haven’t saved quite enough? 

Anyone at any life stage can experience this. But I always encourage trying to save for the “extras.” Even the things that fulfill your priorities and values but that you don’t absolutely need right away. My husband’s shop is a great example. 

You Can Do This!

So, if you want that [kitchen, boat, new bathroom, she shed] but college is coming soon, now’s a great time to start making a plan. And it’s still possible to make a plan if college is catapulting right around the corner (maybe it’s in just a few months)! 

You may just need to heavily consider how you’ll make it happen more quickly. You might even need to come up with a more robust savings plan early on so you can prep for those college bills and the things you really want.

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