That's a question that my friend Kevin asked me probably around 3 years ago. It was a simple question. He had recently had a son and he wanted to put aside money to cover his education. Kudos to him for starting early. The question lead me to write this article: Saving for College – An Exercise in Depression. In hindsight, it was a total cop-out as I never did answer his question.
Today, I think I'm going to do better... hopefully a lot better.
I have a vested interest this time around. My own son is four weeks old today and I'm in Kevin's shoes (not entirely, but I'll get to that the end). I got in reminder about all this from CollegeAdvantage, the place I determined had the best 529 plan for my niece and nephew. Specifically their newsletter had this image on the right (click for a larger view). The part that caught my attention is the bottom that assumed annual deposits of $2,400. For all practical purposes (minus some interest compounding) that's $200 a month.
This didn't answer Kevin's question, but goes down the right track, giving me a good estimate of how much I'd have if I saved roughly $200 a month. However, it didn't tell me how much college was going to be when Little Man is 18. Without this information I really can't know how much to save.
When in doubt, I fire up Excel and get nerdy with some math. Here's what my Excel spreadsheet looks like (click for larger) and I'll explain what I did here:
On the right you'll see three headings with numbers below them, "Monthly, Interest, and College Increase." These are the main variables that I'm playing with here. If I save $674 a month (more on that seemingly random number later) and earn 6% interest I'll have the amount at the bottom of the "Interest" column under the Savings heading. The Interest column represents how much money I'd have at the end of year assuming deposits and interest. I could have titled this column better, but that's the beauty of Excel, I'm getting to the numbers quickly. For fun I've totaled up the amount of actually cash I'd be putting aside by saving $674 a month. So putting $145,584 over time yields me $350,957 when Little Man is 21. I didn't factor in taking the deductions out of this to actually pay for college, so there's room for improvement here. It is important to remember that this is an estimate and there's no guarantee of earning 6%.
Now let's turn our attention to the right column of College Costs. Using the "College Increase" value, I can estimate how much college might cost Little Man at age 18. The 4% is just a best guess. Ideally, I would know how much college costs are expected to go up over the next years. Perhaps some research group has a good answer there. I settled on 4% because quite honestly, if you put a 8% number in there the last year of private college is $212,000. I don't see that happening. Even at 4% the last year being $96,000 looks pretty daunting. However, in 18 years it might not be. I've totaled up the last four years of the college costs and you can see that public college is likely to cost around $184,500 with private school costing $363,000. Now it becomes a little clear where that $674 a month came from... that amount gives me the $350,000 range that covers 4 years of private college.
The last piece to the puzzle is where did I get the information for the public and private school costs to start with right now? The answer is Collegeboard's annual estimates. They did all the heavy lifting give me a number for how much an average public or private college would cost with most of the typical fees rolled in.
So now that I've gone through all this math, let me make things easy for you. Saving for College has a College Cost and Savings Calculator, which is dead simple. You just put in a child's age and it tells you a number that you need to save. I put in $0 just now and it came up with a $602 number that I have to save each month. From there, you can adjust the scenarios just like I could with my Excel spreadsheet. If I had seen this calculator first, I would have skipped the spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet does give me helpful checkpoints. When I did it a couple of weeks ago, I believe that number was $674. When I plugged that $674 number into my Excel spreadsheet things started to fall into place.
The calculator from Savings for College also has a lot of other valuable information. For example, it assumes a 6% cost of college increase using historical information. The 4% assumption in my spreadsheet looks to have been an underestimation. If that stands true, the last year of private school for Little Man is going to cost $143,543. Zoinks!
There are still a few different factors at play here. Going back to the CollegeAdvantage chart, there are taxes to consider, but 529 plans can help with that. If you are saving in a regular brokerage account, who knows what long-term capital gains are going to be at that time? Again, you just take your best guess and adjust as you get closer.
Now for the fun part... I get to throw most of this research in the trash. It turns out that Little Man appears to be eligible to get free public education thanks to my wife's GI Bill with the military. I knew that it was a tremendous benefit, but this exercise has put it in a whole new light.
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