College seems to be getting exponentially more expensive, but the tall task of saving for college isn’t impossible…especially if you start early.

College costs worry everyone, from parents helping their students pay the bills right now to Grownups deep into paying off their student debt. If you have a baby, you might be worrying about saving for college while managing current bills.

According to surveys from the last couple of years, Millennial parents are saving more aggressively for their children’s college. A 2017 TD Ameritrade survey comparing younger adults’ savings attitudes with their grandparents’ found that Grownups are saving, on average, $310 per month for kids’ education. In fact, saving for college came out on top—over retirement, a down payment for a home, and health and medical emergencies. Sallie Mae’s 2016 survey found that parents of all generations are saving more for college, and Grownups are saving the most.

You’re probably feeling the sting of your own college debt and thus the urge to save for your baby. Saving is smart. But you’ve heard the adage: you can borrow for college, but you can’t borrow for retirement. The best scenario is to create some balance and do both. But it’s not easy for young families to meet all their savings goals, especially on entry-level salaries. I talked to Tim Hewitt, Pennsylvania-based senior financial advisor with the Wiley Group, to find out what he says about balancing college savings with other goals.

Like the surveys’ findings, he says many of his younger clients prioritize college savings, likely because the pain point of student loans is so fresh. They also realize they don’t have as long to save for college as they do retirement, so college tends to top the list. Some clients want to fully fund a private college, while others are happy to fund 50 percent of a state university.

Hewitt’s first priority for young families is to help them build an adequate cash savings account for unexpected events, a job loss, or a health issue. The second goal is to create a plan for paying down high-interest debt and student loans. After that, families can get creative about savings goals, including retirement, college, and saving to buy a house. These tend to be the top three, he says, and how much to save for each is a personal decision. But if you can get started early with automating savings goals, you’ll have more flexibility.

Once you have a retirement vehicle and a college savings plan in place, the amount you contribute is easy to dial up or down as needed. And if you need to take a short break from a particular goal, the established accounts might keep growing on their own. Hewitt recommends stashing annual bonuses or other one-off payments into these accounts when they come in.

Very often, getting on the same page about how much to save for college isn’t easy, according to Nannette Kamien, a college-focused financial advisor and owner of Inspiration Financial Planning. Each person has a distinct post-high school experience, whether they went to college at all, had to pay their own way, had everything paid for and they feel obligated to provide the same, or something in between. Hashing out philosophies with your partner—more emotion-laden than you might think, Kamien says—is the starting point to saving for college.

Keep in mind, college contributions can come from many sources, but relatives don’t plan to contribute to retirement funds and emergency savings. There’s the chance of inheritance, of course, and you might be able to borrow from family for an emergency, but better not to plan that way.

College help, on the other hand, can come from scholarships, grants if you qualify, borrowing within reason, and gifts. One financial guideline that college experts recommend is the one-third, one-third, one-third fraction. Save one-third of projected costs, plan to pay one-third from current income when your child is in college, and take one-third from long-term financing such as loans, preferably in your student’s name (you can even help pay off the loans). If you manage to save more than one-third, that’s great. Teens also need to be invested in their education, so don’t underestimate their contribution from part-time work during the year and in summer.

Letting relatives know you’d love a contribution to a 529 plan in lieu of birthday and holiday toys (or too many toys) brings family goals out into the open. Often, grandparents plan to contribute but don’t say how much. Relatives can contribute directly to a 529, write a check to you, or buy a Gift of College gift card. A few credit cards offer cash back to be invested into a 529 account, including the Fidelity Rewards Signature Visa and Upromise MasterCard. There’s also the Upromise loyalty program. Check whether the cards limit your choice of 529 plans or where you shop, and be sure to consider whether you’re good at paying off balances. Carrying debt won’t help the bottom line.

If you’re worried saving for college hurts financial aid chances, it’s useful to understand that financial aid formulas weight income much more heavily. Of savings, you’re expected to contribute just 5.64 percent. That’s $564 on $10,000. Of course, that formula could change in the future, but don’t let that keep you from putting money away.

It may be that the current college model changes radically over the next 15 years. Higher education expert Jeffrey Selingo envisions different models of learning as the pace of acquiring necessary job skills picks up.

Whatever the future holds, saving in the meantime is always good. Just make sure you’re meeting your other goals, too.

Joanna Nesbit writes about college, education, personal finance, and the nuts and bolts of transitioning to adulthood. Follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit or learn more at

Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.

While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, consult the advice of a financial planner.

Let's take action, Grownup.

Check out our courses to start taking action on your goals any time.

Take a course

Let's stay in touch, Grownup.