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College Saving Secrets

These days, it's probably a toss-up who's more nervous about college: you or your child. Graduates leave school with an average of $26,600 in debt -- but you don't have to leverage your 401(k) if you want to contribute. All it takes is a little planning and help from your teen to cut costs and minimize loan payments.
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Greg Mably

Assess your retirement savings. Invest in yourself first: Start putting money into a 401(k) or Roth IRA before contributing to your child's college bills. "You can't take out a loan for your retirement," says Carol Stack, coauthor of The Financial Aid Handbook. "And you don't want to end up relying on your kids to support you." Use an online calculator like the one at troweprice.com/ric to find out how much you should be setting aside each month. By keeping your savings goals on track, you may have more leeway to fund your child's education.

Discuss your contribution. It's not easy to talk about finances with your children, says Stack, but if your teen is counting on you to help pay for school, she has to know whether and how much you plan to give each year. You can get an estimate of what a school might expect you to contribute by filling out the FAFSA4caster, a free, anonymous financial aid calculator at studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa/estimate.

Save without budgeting. If you're maxed out on what you can set aside for college, consider signing up for a rebate plan. Sallie Mae's Upromise program offers as much as 8% back on your purchases, which can then be applied toward tuition. Before your teen enrolls in school, the rebates can be transferred into a 529 plan; after your child graduates, the reimbursements can be put toward loan payments. (Grandparents and other relatives can also sign up.)

Have "the other talk." Choosing a university requires thought and planning. Most teens don't decide on their top colleges until junior or senior year of high school, says Scott Weingold, cofounder of College Planning Networking. Even then, many make choices based on where their friends are going. "Starting at the beginning of their sophomore year, talk to them about what their strengths and interests are and what they like to do," he says. "College is obnoxiously expensive enough -- now add on that it's not uncommon for kids to take up to six years to graduate." So get them thinking in advance about schools, majors and potential careers.

Win the Scholarship Game

Start early. Even if your teen is years away from college, she should apply for scholarships. "You'd be surprised how many there are for elementary school students," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. Some examples are spelling, art and writing awards -- not to mention a seriously lucrative $25,000 Jif prize for the most creative peanut butter sandwich. Find a list of possibilities at finaid.org/age13. Some school assignments (like a science fair project or an essay) can even qualify.

Search online. College students earn an average of $2,800 in scholarships, according to one report, making it among the best ways they can save for school. "Every dollar they are awarded is a dollar less they have to borrow," says Kantrowitz. The best sites include ScholarshipAmerica.org, Fastweb.com, and CollegeBoard.org. Here's how your child can maximize her efforts:

  • Rule #1: Fill out the entire profile. Scholarship "matching" sites find awards for teens by asking them to complete detailed questionnaires about themselves. Answering all the questions, including the optional ones, says Kantrowitz, will yield more results.
  • Rule #2: Apply for (almost) everything. If a student isn't eligible for a scholarship -- let's say, she just barely missed the GPA requirement -- then she can skip it. Otherwise, your teen should pursue all potential matches, says Kantrowitz. "Many applications are essays that require personal statements. The first half dozen or so will be labor intensive, but after that kids can start recycling answers," he says. Teens should set up a Google Calendar with due dates for all scholarships and make sure they're aware of how much time they'll need to complete the paperwork.
  • Rule #3: Beware of scams. The biggest red flag is being asked for an application or processing fee. "Legitimate providers want to give you money, not take it from you," says Kantrowitz. "Never invest more than a postage stamp.? Also be wary of sites that ask for personal information, like a bank account or Social Security number.