Ten years ago I was flipping through a magazine at the doctor’s office when I came across an article about the best ways to save for college.
It was a topic I’d been thinking about … a lot.
Even though my kids were young—my daughter, Jai, was 10, and my son, Matthew, was 7—I’d been putting about $25 a month into a college savings account for each of them since they were born, as well as every dollar they’d ever been given as a gift. I’d also opened South Carolina state 529 accounts for each of them, where I was depositing about $125 a month. And I was contributing to a state tuition prepayment plan too.
I knew I was doing the right thing by saving so much, but I constantly wondered if it would be enough.
I was starting to hear about skyrocketing tuition prices from friends who were also worried about whether they were putting enough away for their kids’ education. When I attended Spelman College in 1981, the tuition was just $3,000 a year. But when my daughter was in kindergarten 18 years later, that tuition had already shot up to nearly $12,000 a year—and I knew it was only going to increase.
So when the article mentioned the Private College 529 Plan, a savings plan that lets you prepay private college tuition and lock in today’s rates, I was intrigued—especially since I was hoping my daughter would follow in my own footsteps at Spelman.
Why I Started Saving the Day My Kids Were Born
As a high school senior, I had my heart set on Spelman, the all-girls college in Atlanta. The only problem? My dad didn’t want me to go because of that $3,000 price tag.
But I was determined to do whatever it took to attend. So I applied for—and won—a $1,000-a-year scholarship, and worked as a dorm desk aid, resident assistant and biology tutor on campus to pay the rest.
After graduation I applied to medical school at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, but the awards package I received wasn’t what I expected. I wrote a letter to the financial aid office, explaining that I couldn’t afford the $12,000-a-year tuition and therefore wouldn’t be attending.
To my surprise, they sent me a significantly larger scholarship package, allowing me to enroll. I ended up with just $26,000 in student debt after med school, and as an internist now making roughly $90,000 a year, paying off my loans wasn’t too difficult.
But times have since changed. I knew there was no way my kids would ever receive a similar response if we wrote a letter pleading for financial aid. Even if they also worked their way through college, they simply wouldn’t be able to cover their tuition costs as I had—which is exactly what inspired me to start saving for their education as soon as they were born.
An A+ Plan for Saving for College
Not only did I not want my kids to struggle to pay for college, I also didn’t want them to feel shoehorned into attending a school with the cheapest tuition. A lot of family friends had no choice but to send their kids to state schools, but I wanted something different for my kids—for them to have options.
As the breadwinner in my household, I made sure we were always comfortable, but we never spent a lot on things we didn’t need. My kids didn’t have the video games and expensive cell phones their friends had, and I made sure to stash whatever extra money we had into their savings plans.
So by the time I read that magazine article in 2005, I was already in the right frame of mind and started doing some research on the private college plan. Basically, I learned that…