Many parents have trouble saving money for college. After day-to-day expenses and competing financial priorities, it may seem like there is little leftover to fund a 529 plan. But, in some cases what seems like a monetary problem is actually a psychological problem that can be fixed by changing your habits. 

Each day you wait to start saving for college you miss out on potential earnings growth in a 529 plan and will end up having to pay more out of pocket to reach your goal. Consider these ways to trick your brain into saving more money for college.

Track your spending

Increasing awareness of spending is the first step in exercising restraint. Tracking your spending will allow you to see where every dollar goes. Use budgeting software or an app like Mint.com or Quicken, or even a basic spreadsheet to get started.

Review spending patterns over the last 12 months to see total monthly and annual expenses and identify any trends. For example, spending $250 a month on dining out may not seem significant, but the $3,000 annual total may cause concern.

Compare college savings to other expenses

Make a list of your total household expenses, and include the amount you allocated for college savings. Sort each expense by dollar amount and see where college savings ends up. Realizing that you put $5,000 toward a family vacation each year and dedicated $1,200 to college savings may convince you to shift more money toward your 529 plan.

Reevaluate your goals

College is one of the biggest expenses a family will face. Instead of focusing on the total projected cost, break down your savings goal into smaller increments. Aiming for monthly contributions, or looking at daily figures, may make it easier to save more since the dollar amounts are smaller and less intimidating. Use a college savings calculator to help determine the amount your family will need to save each month.

Once you set a realistic college savings goal, benchmark your progress and note whether you are falling short and if so, by how much. If you are consistently achieving your goal, consider increasing making small but frequent increases to your 529 plan contributions. You will be less likely to notice the impact of small increases in your budget, but it could make a big difference in your ending balance when it’s time to pay for college.

Celebrating specific milestones can help reinforce positive savings behavior. For example, you could celebrate each time your 529 plan reaches the next multiple of $10,000. 

 

Automate your savings

Most 529 plans offer automatic investment plans that allow you to link a bank account and schedule monthly contributions. Families who have to remember to save for college each month will be more likely to forget. By making savings automatic, you will also take advantage of dollar cost averaging. Dollar cost averaging is a strategy that may reduce volatility in your 529 portfolio by buying more shares when prices are lower and fewer shares when prices are higher.

Use peer pressure to help you save

Discuss your college savings with your spouse or a close friend. Having someone to hold you accountable to your goals will help keep you on track since you won’t want to let them down. Your college savings buddy will help reinforce positive behavior and can also be a sounding board for decisions concerning risk tolerance

Leverage your emotions

Remind yourself why you are saving. Post pictures of colleges on your refrigerator or your desk next to a picture of your child. Your child may not have a specific college in mind yet but having a picture of a typical college campus or an iconic building from your state’s public college may be enough of a reminder.

Round up your purchases to get rewards

Sign up for Upromise to earn rewards for making online purchases, dining out and using the Upromise Mastercard. The Upromise Mastercard offers 1.25% cash back on all purchases, and members who link their 529 plan can earn an additional 15% bonus. All purchases made with the Upromise Mastercard can be rounded up to the nearest dollar amount to earn even more rewards.

Focus on the future negative impact

The less money you save for college, the more you will have to borrow in student loans. Consider this:

  • If you start saving for college at birth, about a third of the college savings goal will come from earnings. 
  • Every dollar borrowed for college will cost about $2 by the time you repay the debt. 
  • Therefore, saving $1 for college will avoid $3 in future student loan payments, since $1 in savings grows to about $1.50 on average, which avoids in $1.50 in student loan debt that will eventually cost $3 in payments.

At Savingforcollege.com, our goal is to help you make smart decisions about saving and paying for education. Some of the products featured in this article are from our partners, but this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.