Behind on Saving for College for Your Teenagers? Here's What to Do.

Catherine Catherine

By Catherine Catherine
Catherine Alford is the go-to personal finance blogger for educated, aspirational moms who want to recapture their life passions and take on a more active financial role in their families. Named the Best Contributor/Freelancer for Personal Finance in 2014, she is also the founder of, an award-winning personal finance blog.
Posted on 01/18/2019

Many parents aren't able to save for their children's college education while their kids are young. Often, parents are consumed with paying back their own student loans. And, most financial experts would agree that parents should prioritize retirement savings over saving for college for their kids.

Still, it's never too late to start saving for college. And, if you have teenagers but no college savings, you still have a few options. Here are a few examples.

Choose an Affordable College

Despite rising college costs, many young students are still focused on attending their "dream school". This could be an expensive private school or an out of state public school with a high tuition.

Talk to your kids early about their expectations, and explain what you're able to contribute. If you have your own student loans, tell them what it feels like to have student debt weighing you down as an adult. Make sure they know that countless successful people went to schools that aren't in the top 20 or top 25 colleges in the country. Many people go on to Ivy League graduate schools and high paying jobs from state schools. At the end of the day, it's about the student and what they do with their college experience far more than the name of the school.

For example, a student who has high grades, extensive research, and leadership roles in college might fare better with graduate school applications or in the marketplace than someone who went to an Ivy League school but didn't participate in any activities or do well.

Consider Community College

Community colleges are a great way to tackle general college courses at a discounted rate. In fact, many high school students dual enroll at community colleges while they are juniors and seniors, which means they can earn a semester or two of college credit before they even graduate from high school.

A year of in state community college classes, according to College Board, will cost on average $3,440 per year whereas a four-year public college or university in state runs on average $9,410 per year. So, two years of community college can lead to a significant savings.

Additionally, many people don't realize some community colleges have matriculation agreements with some of the top universities in the country. For example, in Virginia, you can get guaranteed admission to top universities like UVA and William and Mary if you meet a certain set of requirements after attending certain Virginia community colleges. Although not guaranteed, it's even possible to transfer to Ivy League universities from community colleges if you excel in your coursework and get involved.

Ask Your Teenager to Contribute By Working Part-Time

I worked several different jobs while I was in college, which helped defray the cost of my tuition and other activities. You can tell your teenager that you can help with some college costs, like splitting tuition 50/50, but they'd be responsible for other college costs.

In order for them to pay for their share, they can work part-time while in high school and college. While they're in high school, they can save $5,000-$10,000 over the course of 2-4 years, which can give them a jump start on their college tuition. Then, every semester they work in college, they can use what they earn to fund the following semester.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with asking your child to work while in high school or college. Working and earning money for their education will give them a sense of ownership over the process. Plus, a study published in BU Today showed that students who work actually get better grades.

Open Tax Advantaged College Savings Plans

Lastly, even if your child is a junior or senior, you can still open college savings plans for them. One of the most common college savings plans is a 529. A 529 college savings plan is a tax advantaged investment account that enables you to save for future college cost on a tax-favored basis. This means that your investment earnings grow tax-free. Some states also offer additional tax benefits, but you'll have to research your particular state to see what you qualify for.

The catch is that any money you withdraw from your 529 plan must be used for educational expenses, otherwise there is a penalty. Still, if you can save in a tax advantaged account it's worth it, even if you're only able to contribute for a year or two.

Final Thoughts

If you have teenagers and you haven't saved for their educational expenses yet, don't worry--it's never too late to start saving for college. It's important to be flexible, like encouraging them to attend more affordable schools or a community college at first. Additionally, if they can contribute their own money, that can help balance the cost.

A few years ago, parents didn't even blink at the idea of their children taking out student loans for college. Now that so many people feel the burden of student loan debt, more and more parents are trying to find ways for their children to graduate from college debt-free.

Remember, having significant student loan debt can severely limit their options when it comes to taking jobs, moving, and it can also cause them to delay big life events like marriage, having kids, and buying a home. So, help point them in the right direction and encourage them to make wise financial choices when it comes to college. This might mean not being able to attend their dream school, but it might also mean being able to live life free of excessive student loan debt.