Parents all know that paying for college is hard. It’s expensive, and the price tag keeps climbing—tuition rises faster than inflation and has more than doubled in the past 30 years. It can also be confusing to navigate the sea of federal loans, institutional aid, and other funding options.

The best way to minimize this headache is to plan ahead and to regularly put money into an account earmarked for university, even if all you can afford to squirrel away is pennies from beneath your couch cushions. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help get you on the path towards a well-educated (and hopefully, debt-free) child:

DO: Set up a 529. Instead of cash for my nephew’s milestones, I put money directly into his 529 college savings account. 529s offer a state tax deduction if you use Virginia529 plans. They also feature tax-free investment growth if you use the money for qualified education expenses. While 529s do show up on the FAFSA, they count as a parental asset, so they only factor in at a maximum of 5.64%.

DON’T: Save for college with retirement savings accounts. While it’s true that retirement assets are sheltered from financial aid calculations on the FAFSA, money taken out of a retirement savings account will count as income. If you’re going to be relying on financial aid, do your best to avoid taking money out of your retirement account while you have children in college.

DO: Ask the right questions to learn about a school’s financial aid program. Many parents like to ask what percent of financial need is met by the school. Instead, try asking, “what is the average debt burden of students graduating from your school?” This is a number that’s harder to fudge.

DON’T: Wait until the last minute to figure out your situation. Check out online calculators to help estimate how much aid you might be eligible for and start planning accordingly – the sooner, the better!

DO: Keep your child involved in – or at least aware of – the financials. Planning for college offers countless teachable moments. Sit down with your child and explain both the concept of investment (and how college is one because, while pricey, it will pay off over the long term) as well as the mechanics of debt.

Navigating the stormy seas of college planning when you have other goals on your mind (retirement, anyone?) is no easy feat, but you don’t have to go it alone. Give us a call or drop me an email at if you have any questions or would like to do some in-depth planning.