By Vicki Bohling

It's graduation season, and for many parents, this time of year is a clear and present reminder of a milestone that can be the cause of much financial stress--paying for college. Whether you are starting early or late in the college savings game, there are a number of things you can to do to prepare.

When I snapped this picture of my niece, Emma, after my sister’s MBA graduation ceremony a couple of years ago, the thought of her wearing her own mortarboard someday seemed light years away. She’s still got a few years to go, but the time is shrinking fast – especially from a savings perspective. The year Emma enters college, the projected average cost for four years at an in-state public college will be $126,511 and $259,394 if she chooses to pursue a degree at a private college. That’s a lot of jelly beans. Whether you are starting early or late in the college savings game, there are a number of things you can to do to prepare:

If you have kids under the age of 5

  • When so much of your cash flow is going toward diapers and day care, it’s easy to put off saving for college. But starting a savings plan early – even if it’s just a few dollars a month – will pay the greatest dividends in the long run.
  • Whether you choose to contribute to a basic savings account or something more specialized like a 529 plan, invest systematically and automatically.
  • If your child is between the ages of 6 and 9

  • Consider giving kids a weekly allowance as an opportunity to learn about three important money concepts: spending, saving and sharing. Start talking with them about their dreams for the future, and how saving now can mean a wider range of choices later.
  • At birthdays and holidays, think about “now and later” gifts for your child – gifts that are fun to open and enjoy right away, and gifts that have more sustaining value. When our kids were little, their grandparents would often give them a small gift to open along with a savings bond. They didn’t “get it” at the time, but now that they’ve seen some of the bonds hit maturity, it’s a much bigger deal.
  • If your child is between the ages of 10 and 14

  • Assess where you are in your savings plan. With rising costs of college expenses, most families need to subsidize their savings with some form of financial aid. Tap an online financial aid calculator to determine costs and eligibility.
  • Tune into your child’s interests and begin to talk casually about life beyond high school, but try to stay relaxed and flexible. Eighty percent of college-bound students are unsure about what they want to study, and most will change their major more than once during the course of their college career.
  • If your child is between the ages of 15 and 18

  • Encourage your teen to apply for scholarships. It takes time and some resourceful research, but you’d be amazed at the different kinds of scholarship funds that are out there. Tall Clubs International offers a $1000 scholarship to exceptionally tall young adults…who knew?
  • Do what you can to plump up your college savings plan at this point, but resist the temptation to dip into retirement savings. College students can lean on federal loans for support – retirees cannot.
  • And when disaster strikes, make the best of the situation...
    And yet, even the best laid plans can take unpredictable turns. When a market slump in 2008 zapped our son’s college account with less than a year to high school graduation, we panicked. Here’s how we managed: he started by taking classes at a local community college, working part-time, and living at home for his first few semesters (not always a dream situation, but it worked). He’s now at a four-year college, living on campus, and loving every minute. He's well on his way to a mortarboard of his own, but without amassing a mountain of debt (Yay!).
    1. MFEA
    3. Article: College Freshmen Face Major Dilemma
    4. The College Board online
    5. Article: 11 Bizarre But Excellent Scholarships