When our baby boy arrived, my husband and I were absolutely thrilled. He was born exactly five years to the day of the completion of our graduate degrees, which we had pursued at night while working full-time.
Despite working while pursuing our various degrees, we had accumulated more than $100,000 of educational debt.
We were living in a small one-bedroom apartment figuring out how we were going to cover the additional cost of childcare, the eventual need for a larger home, and other new expenses—all while continuing to pay back our student loans.
Something else was weighing heavily on our minds too. As the first generation in our families to pursue higher education—and to do so without any financial preparation due to our families’ lack of resources—we wanted to find a way to do better for our child.
Given our experience with student loan borrowing and repayment, we were absolutely determined to do anything we could to make certain our child would have a less financially stressful academic experience when he grew up.
We wanted him to avoid the consequences we had experienced of being financially unprepared for the cost of higher education. This was our motivation to begin to find a way to save for his future—and we did.
My husband and I were both diligent about making our required monthly student loan payments on time and whenever we found we had a little extra money—from a tax refund or bonus at work for instance—we would apply those funds toward the loans’ principal. We were also careful not to overspend on non-essentials.
I don’t remember the exact payment amounts, but each of us was repaying hundreds of dollars each month.
To save for our son’s future, I decided to take a little at a time out of each of my paychecks and contribute the funds directly to a 529 college savings plan, and my husband contributed as well.
529 plans are special accounts that enable U.S. residents to invest specifically for future higher education expenses, without being taxed on the earnings as the account grows in value.
Many states, including New York, where we live, provide an annual state tax deduction as well for contributions to 529 college savings plans.
We started the savings process when our son was an infant as soon as I returned to my job from my maternity leave. Setting up automatic contributions to a single-purpose education savings account took the guesswork out of saving and kept us from potentially diverting the money for other purposes.
There were three ways I stayed positive throughout our debt repayment and savings journey. The first was gratitude. I recognized the many career doors that our education had helped us to open, and I remained grateful for that versus being negative about the challenges associated with the cost of obtaining higher education.
Something else that helped me to stay positive was identifying my “why” and holding it close to my heart and mind. My “why” was wanting my son to have options about which school to attend, what majors to consider, and ultimately, what career to pursue.
It was wanting him to enter adulthood without being weighed down by student loan debt as his dad and I once were. I visualized the outcome I wanted to achieve and that helped tremendously.
And in the end, through years of diligent saving, we achieved as a family exactly what I had envisioned and worked so hard towards.
I also stayed positive by reminding myself that our short-term sacrifices would be well worth it in the long run. I tried not to look at our need to be extremely careful about our finances as painful deprivation, but rather as a path to financial freedom for our son and peace of mind for us.
After nearly 20 years of repayment, we were so excited and relieved to finally pay off our student loan debt in full.
Quite frankly, the repayment of my student loan debt felt as good as earning my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I thought about framing my “paid in full” from my lender. It felt like that big of an achievement.
In age-appropriate ways, we also talked to our son about the fact that we were taking a certain amount out of our paychecks for his college savings account, so that he would not have to borrow money to pursue his dreams as we had.
Twice annually, during his childhood, we took him to cash in the coins he had diligently saved in his piggy bank. This enabled us to deposit a total of $600 a year on average into his college savings account.
We also encouraged him to put a portion of the holiday and birthday money he received into his college savings account.
Telling him about our financial experience as students and the stress that student loan repayment placed on us, helped put into context why we cared so much about saving for him.
We also taught our son that what we spent as a family had a lot to do with what we could save. For example, we made a decision as a family to drive the same automobile for over two decades. The money we saved by not spending on a newer automobile helped us save more for college.
I feel strongly that the seeds of financial education for children are planted at home. They learn a tremendous amount from what they see—not just from what they are told. We made every effort as parents to walk the talk.
Our son managed to graduate debt-free due in large part to our diligence as a family in saving in advance for the cost. Another important factor was his making a sensible choice about which university to attend. He picked a school that he liked which offered him a partial merit scholarship, which helped lower the total cost.
With some extra time on my hands during the pandemic, I felt moved to write a book to help other families prepare for higher education expenses, make sensible decisions when the time comes to choose an institution to attend, and to avoid or minimize the crushing weight of student loan debt. I’m proud of the number of families I’ve been able to help.
For those trying to pay off debt and/or to save for a future goal, my advice is to start with your “why”.
Consider why you want to get your debt paid off and in what timeframe. Imagine how your future will look and feel once the debt is paid off, how free you will feel without the weight upon you. Follow the same steps for your savings goals.
Hold your vision close to your heart as you take consistent steps toward achieving it. Create a visual to remind you of the importance of the journey you are on.
Incorporate gratitude in the process. Be grateful that you have the funds determination, and knowledge to pay off debt and/or save for the future.
Find ways to cut your expenditures. The less you spend, the more you will have to contribute toward your debt and likewise, toward your future goals.
Patricia Roberts is the author of Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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