Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Saturday

February 22, 2014

Buy College, Not Toys

TRAVERSE CITY — Veda, Tristan and Layla got a nice benefit package when they signed on to the Urban family — a college plan with parental matching funds.

They’ll appreciate it more when they’re out of diapers.

“We set it up after our first daughter was born, and listed every child as a beneficiary,” Terese Urban said of the family’s 529 Michigan Education Savings Plan account. “Any time they receive money for birthdays, Christmas and baptisms, we put it in there. Then we round up and match it with our own money. They’re actually doing pretty well right now.”

Veda is 3, Tristan is 2 and Layla is 5-months-old.

Parents of young children usually groan when college financial planner Vicki Beam sets up her booth at Traverse City’s preschool expos. But it’s never too early for parents to start thinking about college financial strategy — especially if they actually want to retire, Beam said.

“They hold their hands up and say ‘I can’t think about this right now,’” Beam said. But college tuition trajectory — Beam sends her hand skyward — and the complicated tangle of college financial procedure and policy, means there’s no time like the present.

The alternative is ugly. The gap between what families expect to pay and the actual bill can prompt panic and unnecessary loan debt.

“They’re overwhelmed. They’re confused. So they don’t end up doing anything,” said Matt Breimayer, Beam’s colleague at Michigan College Planning. Confused inaction with a blind faith in “financial aid” is the most common — and least effective — coping mechanism, he said.

This is sticker shock season, and often a time of last-minute scholarship scrambling.

Families of high school seniors are making a last dash for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the deadline is March 1 — and are getting the numbers back on their Expected Family Contribution. More than 35 scholarship applications recently opened up on the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation website, all with deadlines between now and March 10.

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