You know that it’s a good idea to start early to save for your kids’ college, but what if your budget just doesn’t allow for that right now? Are there other things you can do so that you’re ready when dormitory move-in day comes?

To talk about what parents can do to prepare for the college years even if they can’t save right now, I’m turning to Jeannie Burlowski as my guest blogger for today. Jeannie Burlowski is the author of the book LAUNCH: How to Get Your Kids Through College Debt Free and Into Jobs They Love Afterward (due out in late 2015). She is a full time author, consultant, and conference speaker. She provides free, clear, step-by-step help for parents, teens, and school staff in her “WHAT TO DO WHEN” section at JeannieBurlowski.com.

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Jason tucked the little ones in bed, kissed them goodnight, and then sat down heavily beside his wife Cindy at their dining room table. “How bad is it?” he asked. She pointed at a line on the laptop screen, and Jason blew a breath up into his hairline. It was bill pay night, and once again their monthly income wasn’t stretching to cover their expenses. Jason and Cindy were still slogging through their own student loan debt — and they hadn’t even begun to save for their retirement. There was just no way they could think about college savings for the four little elementary schoolers sleeping upstairs.

Or was there?

Here’s good news for Jason and Cindy. There are 7 things parents can do to prepare financially for college – even if they can’t save right now.

manwithlaptop1. Sign up for the free college savings program available at Upromise.com.

You’re going to buy necessities like groceries and drug store items anyway, right? Sign up for a free account at Upromise.com, register your grocery and drug store loyalty cards there, and without doing another thing a percentage of every dollar you spend at these stores will be funneled into a special account that you’ll be able to use for any student’s college savings, current college-related expenses, or payment of Sallie Mae® student loans. Over 21,000 grocery and drug stores participate, and no credit card is required. Grandparents and other relatives can participate too, giving the money they save up to any college students they want to.

2. As early as possible, ask close relatives to reconsider gift giving.

Grandma was going to give your son a Wal-Mart sweater for Christmas, but if you talk to her she might decide to give her grandson a brightly wrapped package with a letter inside for each holiday and birthday instead. In the letter she could tell him how much she loves him, what admirable good character she sees in him, how much potential she sees in him, how proud she is of what he’s accomplished the previous year, how excited she is to see him have a successful future, and that she has made a contribution to a fund where she’s saving for his college education. Any amount will help. To protect later eligibility for financial aid, Grandma should save this money in her own name and then write a check directly to the college when college bills come due.

3. Parents, get help slaying your own debt dragon.

When I have clients grappling with tight finances due to debt, I refer them to the books and audio resources provided by Dave Ramsey, radio host and New York Times bestselling author of The Total Money Makeover. (Online at DaveRamsey.com.) Have a family meeting once a week where you work toward paying your debts off one by one, and you’ll be miles down the road toward being debt free a year from now. Soon, college savings will be a regular part of your financial life.

4. Plan for the “kindergarten windfall.”

On the day that your baby starts kindergarten, your family may experience an exhilarating financial windfall. Daycare expenses may suddenly plummet. A former stay- at-home parent might start working full-time or part-time. The boost in your income in either of these scenarios is likely to be sudden and remarkable. During the summer before this happens, sit down and plan out how to invest this windfall. Make a plan to strategically pay off the rest of your household debt, and then once you’ve done that — visit a Certified Financial Planner and make a plan to substantially increase your retirement and college savings. You’ll build wealth, you’ll build financial freedom, and you’ll build a secure financial future for both yourself and your children.

5. Find ways for your family to serve people who have less than you do.

Did you know that scholarship committees love to give money to students who serve others? Have your family adopt a cause and work on behalf of that same cause over and over again while your children are growing up. As they get older, encourage them to plan and execute their own projects on behalf of this cause. Keep track of everything you do. Your son or daughter can use this experience in scholarship application essays starting in 8th grade. Are you stunned that there are college scholarships that are awarded to 8th graders? Brace yourself; there are even scholarships that are awarded to students younger than that. Have your child apply for 10 scholarships every year starting in middle school and stretching all the way through grad school. If you sign up to receive my weekly newsletter at JeannieBurlowski.com, you’ll be notified of when I’m teaching scholarship application essays classes in your area.

6. Have your middle schooler start taking CLEP tests.

Starting when your child is in 8th grade, go online to CLEP.collegeboard.org/exams/offered and view a list of every CLEP test available to students. Students who successfully pass CLEP tests earn real college credit for what they know – regardless of their age. Every single time your child finishes a middle school or high school class on one of these subjects, have him take the corresponding CLEP test and earn real, transferable college credit for what he’s learned. Not sure he knows enough to pass a CLEP test on the subject? Have him take a free CLEP practice test at practice-exams.free-clep-prep.com, and then if extra help is needed get free CLEP prep at education-portal.com/academy/get-credit.html.

7. Put it in your calendar to visit JeannieBurlowski.com in May when your oldest child is in 8th grade. To get there right now, click here.

JeannieBurlowski.com provides free, clear, step-by-step help for parents who want to get their kids through college debt free. Click your child’s age on an easy-to-navigate “WHAT TO DO WHEN” checklist and receive free, detailed information on what steps to take at your particular point in time to get your child through college debt free.

What about you? What ideas have you heard for getting your kids through college debt free even if you can’t save much at this time? LIKE Jeannie Burlowski Consulting on Facebook and let’s continue the discussion there!

Jeannie Burlowski is a full time author, consultant, and conference speaker. She provides free, clear, step-by-step help for parents, teens, and school staff in her “WHAT TO DO WHEN” section at JeannieBurlowski.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JBurlowski.

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