Q: We have two children (ages 3 and 5) and we’d really like to plan for the cost of college. Unlike us, our hope is to leave them with as little debt as possible. What would you recommend in terms of the amount to save and the type of account to use?

A: Your children are lucky to have parents who want to plan for their future. That’s not something they’ll recognize immediately. They will someday ... probably.

Addressing the “how much” question is different for every family. Some parents hope to just pay for the cost of tuition, fees and books. Some want to provide for an in-state public university. And, others hope to pay the full cost of a private college or out-of-state university. Defining the exact goal is obviously the first step.

For an in-state, public university, the cost of tuition and books are about $15,000 per year. Room and board will run you another $10,000 per year, as a very rough estimate. So, for a four-year degree, that adds up to over $100,000. And, remember, these figures are measured in today’s dollars. Keeping pace with college cost inflation is a great reason to put away money early.

In your case, with about 14 short years until college starts, providing them with four years of college might require you to save about $8,000 to $10,000 per year for each child. If this level of saving isn’t possible within your budget — and let’s be honest, it is not for most people — it’s fine to scale back your goals. Remember, scholarships, grants and student loans are all viable financing tools. We also have a very good community college here, too.

Now, once you’ve decided on the amount you can actually save, my recommendation is to use a 529 plan for each child. The State of Michigan’s plan is called the Michigan Education Savings Program. Go to www.misaves.com to read about it.

The investment earnings inside a 529 plan are not subject to any taxes as long as the money is eventually used for “qualified” education expenses. On top of this tax benefit, your savings can result in an immediate state tax break of up to $425 per year.

Jason P. Tank, CFA is both the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a purely fee-only advisory firm and the founder of the Money Series, a non-profit program committed to providing open-access to financial education, for all. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com and at www.FrontStreet.com.

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