How Am I Going to Send 3+ Kids to College?: Money Series Pt 1

The thought is terrifying from a monetary standpoint. In about twenty years, I will have three children in college AT THE SAME TIME. Talk about poor family planning (from a paying for college standpoint). And if I do end up having four kids, I will have three kids in college for at least 2-3 years IN A ROW. They’re on their own for grad school, man. Geez.

You’ve seen the numbers. From 1985-2011, college costs rose 500%. (I don’t even want to know what it will cost me in fifteen years when Cookie Monster starts college.) As for loans, I suppose I could have my kids take them out, but have you seen the statistics? Plus, all that brouhaha right now about student loans and interest rates and how I know people who are my age who are STILL paying off student loans (both for undergrad and grad school) and how much that hampers them financially.

So what am I to do? If I can help it, I don’t want my kids saddled with debt (at least too much of it). I can’t count on scholarships (especially not athletic) because who knows how smart or hard-working my kids will be? Since my neighborhood is half Indian/Pakistani and half Chinese, I really have no illusions of them being at the top of the pack. (And I’m OK with that. Hapa Papa was nowhere near the top of the pack in high school, went to a state school, and makes SCADS more money than I ever did because he works harder and smarter than I ever wanted to. That’s another post for some other day.)

And no, I’m not going to move to a less competitive neighborhood because really, who doesn’t want their kids surrounded by smart, hard-working kids? If I don’t like my kids’ grades, then they’ll just have to work HARDER, not move to an easier school. (White flight, I’m looking at YOU!)

The only other recourse (in terms of helping my kids with their education costs) is to save aggressively and to save NOW. (Of course, they can also work in high school – and Hapa Papa has big plans for that – and college, too. Those are absolutely on the table!) This is when it totally helps to be a financial advisor (and to have a mother for one as well).

Here is what we are currently doing and hoping to do so in the future. Hopefully, this will help you, but I do realize that I may be in a different financial situation than you and your family so please don’t feel too bad or too smug if you are doing better or worse than we are. There are many ways to pay for school. This is just what I am doing for now.

Disclaimer: I am a financial advisor and own a financial advising firm with my mother. I am not being compensated by any entity or company for the following information. I am ONLY explaining what I do for my own children. If you should so choose to take this advice, please realize that it is not customized nor tailored for your specific situation. I am not dispensing personalized advice for you or your situation. I am not responsible in any way, shape, or form if your investments rise or fall due to market conditions. YMMV. You have been warned.

1) 529 Plans – These are plans that accumulate tax-free and are dispensed tax-free as long as you use them for qualifying higher education costs. The funds remain in our custody and we can switch the beneficiary at any time. (So, if Cookie Monster gets a full ride and doesn’t need this money, then I can transfer the funds to Gamera or Baby3.)

We opened an account for each child as soon as I got their Social Security numbers. I seed it with some money and then contribute about $100/mo per account. I would put more in here, but because it can only be used for higher education costs, I don’t want to put TOO much money in here just in case the kids don’t end up at college or whatever.

2) UGMA/UTMA Accounts – These are just regular savings/investment accounts for my children. I am the custodian but my kids are the ultimate owners when they hit either 18, 21, or 25 (For CA). (I am pretty sure I chose 21.) After that, the money is theirs to do with HOWEVER THEY WISH. Somewhat terrifying, but hopefully, I will have taught my children how to handle their finances well and to make good decisions. I do have to pay taxes on these accounts, but since they’re children, the tax rate is not as horrible.

Any gift cards/checks/cash I received during baby showers, gifts, birthdays, Chinese New Year, etc., I put in here. (In the case of gift cards, I just use the gift card and deposit a corresponding amount into their account.) As with the 529 plan, as soon as I get their Social Security number, I open an UTMA for my kid and deposit a “seed” amount. Then, when they receive money, I put it in their accounts – even if it’s as trivial as a few dollars for a birthday or Chinese New Year. (Usually, I round up and add something on top of it.)

If Hapa Papa gets a bonus at work, or sells some stock grants, or whatever, I will take either all or a portion of it and apply it equally among the kids. If we happen to get a really nice financial gift from family, I do the same. Whatever “extra” money that comes our way, I will always consider putting it in the kids’ accounts. (Unless, for some reason, we need to replenish our emergency fund, our IRA contributions are coming up, or property taxes are coming up, I usually put some in the kids’ accounts.)

Also, any time there is a new baby, I will not only seed money in the new baby’s account, I will also add some money into the older kids’ accounts. Not as much, of course, but some.

3) Aggressively pay down all other debts. That’s pretty self-explanatory. We paid off our mini-van last year ahead of schedule thanks to a stock grant, and we pay extra on our principal for our mortgage every month. Every now and then, we also send in a fat chunk of a bonus or severance or stock grant to pay down the mortgage principal even more. Our goal is to pay off the mortgage before Cookie Monster starts college. We are very lucky that currently, our mortgage is our only debt. This may change if we have to buy a new car later down the road or if we have to get a bigger house when the kids become teenagers.

4) Save aggressively for our retirement. This may seem strange to include as part of the kids’ education savings, but it makes perfect sense to me. The more we save now, due to the time value of money, the less we will have to put away when we’re older and much closer to retirement. In other words, when the kids are in college, we will not have to be scrambling any more than usual to come up with money both for college AND for retirement. The retirement money (barring some horrible economic downturn AGAIN) will already be there.

5) Have the kids work. My parents paid entirely for my education and as a result, I don’t think I took it very seriously. I have been coddled pretty much all my life. Hapa Papa, on the other hand, had some scholarships and worked his way through college without any substantial help from his family. I would like my kids to have something in between.

My current plan is to have the majority of tuition and board as well as some “fun” money for my kids covered. I will give them a monthly stipend and if they run out, they’re out. If they need more money, they can work for it. Also, Hapa Papa is thinking that some day, he’ll start his own consulting firm and farm out work to the kids. He’ll pay them and yes, they can spend some of that money, but a good portion of that will be forced into their college savings account so that they will also pay for their college in that way.

This, of course, is the highly speculative portion of my plan. The kids obviously cannot work now. (Such slackers! Their fellow Chinese kids are making clothes right now! Lazy bastards.) We have no idea if Hapa Papa will ever open up his own shop. We don’t know if college will even be relevant in the future (although, likely yes). But that is our plan for the moment.

I know that we are very fortunate to have so many options. Many folks do not have enough money after necessities to set aside for their kids (let alone for themselves). I would say in terms of priorities, take care of your daily needs first, then emergency funds, then retirement, then kids. No one will give you a loan for the first three, but the last one, there are plenty available.

Again, when I think of all these resources I have available for both myself and my children, I am overwhelmed with gratefulness and guilt and relief. We always want the best for our children – no matter what our circumstances. So I have no doubt that the folks who cannot provide as much for their kids would OF COURSE, do so if their circumstances allowed it. Ultimately, money is important, but there are plenty of children who grew up without a single financial want who have huge holes in their souls due to other unmet needs.

Hrm. Didn’t mean to get all Hallmark on you there. I just know that because of Hapa Papa’s job, we are able to provide much for our family without too much hardship. It isn’t fair; I’m sorry. My only hope is that we can be generous to others as well as ourselves.