Paying for college, huh? You're probably too focused on shelling out for baby gear to think that far ahead. But it's not too soon to start: Financial experts predict that by the time today's newborns are packing up their extra-long twin sheets, four years at a private university will cost $350,000 and at a state school as much as $116,000.
Gulp is right. Yet you don't need to have all that dough in the bank. Divide estimated college expenses into thirds, and plan to save a third, pay a third from your salary each college year, and borrow the other third. "This is a practical way to prepare," says Jeanette Pavini, a household-savings expert with Coupons.com. "Of course, when possible, stash away more. You can adjust accordingly if life brings the unexpected." Follow these deprivation-free saving secrets and your brainiac should be good to go.
Ask utilities to charge you less.
Seriously—ask! "We checked with our cable, car insurance, and cellphone companies to see if they could save us any cash," says Sherry Petersik, half of the budget-minded duo behind home blog YoungHouseLove.com and mom of two. The Petersiks' cable company extended a promotional price that saved them $30 per month, and their insurance company updated their marital status, briskly knocking $134 off the annual bill (they were engaged when they bought the car together).Savings About $10 per week
Cut out a car if you can.
The Petersiks both work from home, so they are able to get by with only one car, even though they live in the burbs. Consider whether your little family could also off-load a set of wheels (and the attendant car payments and insurance costs) by carpooling to the office or taking public transportation instead.Savings About $10 per week
Find free fun"My kids love our library's storytime hour and sing-along sessions," says Christina D'Angelo Bolduc, of Wrentham, Massachusetts, a mom of two. Other activities in your 'hood that will cost you zilch: A stroll through a pet store saves you on zoo admission; a walk by a local firehouse or construction zone will thrill vehicle-obsessed tots.Savings About $12 per week
Dine out on a dime
Go to MyKidsEatFree.com and type in your city and state to find restaurants near you that offer delicious deals for the booster-seat set. "I order a salad and a glass of wine, my daughters get free pizzas, and the bill is $12!" says Anne Macomber, of Denver, a mom of two.Savings About $20 per week
Share the sitting
Take turns with a mommy friend. Or form a babysitting co-op with local families. "Every hour you use costs you a point per kid, and every hour you sit gains you a point; one mom earns some extra points for tracking it all," explains Macomber, who coordinates a co-op with six friends. "If you get stuck for a sitter, you can offer double points as an incentive."Savings About $20 per week
Do movies at home
"With our basic Netflix membership, we get to watch unlimited movies, TV shows, even yoga videos," Petersik says. "We save on the cineplex, yoga studio, and also cut our cable bill."Savings About $10 per week
Dierdre Habershaw, of Boston, throws cheapo dinner parties after daughter Madelyn goes to bed. Petersik often counters invitations to restaurants with offers to have friends over for a home-cooked meal or a cocktail hour. You can also save some moolah by ordering take-out rather than going to a restaurant; the waitress won't be there to tip, or to remind you about appetizers, dessert, and refills.Savings About $20 per week
Try before you buy
"Have your baby use a friend's swing or bouncy seat to make sure she likes it before you spring for one," Petersik suggests. Or, if your buddy is done with hers, ask if you can borrow it instead of buying your own. And feel free to skip some of the supposed must-haves. A $35 booster seat can work as well as a $150 high chair, especially if you have a small kitchen.Savings About $2 per week
Click for coupons
Before you order anything online, search for deals by typing "coupon" and the item into a search engine. Check sites such as RetailMeNot.com, and sign up for your favorite stores' email lists so they can send you promos. Major retailers, including Buy Buy Baby, sometimes offer deals when you "like" them on Facebook.Savings About $4 per week
Request price breaks
Some smaller, locally owned stores will offer you a discount if you pay in cash, says Danny Kofke, dad of two and author of How to Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) on a Teacher's Salary.Savings About $5 per week
Put credit cards to work
Cori Smith, of Boston, a mom of two, charges her big purchases on a credit card and accumulates points that she eventually cashes in for vacation perks. If you do this, though, pay the whole balance each month to avoid interest and finance charges.Savings About $10 per week
Earn while you spend
At UPromise.com, when you register for free, participating vendors (including Babies "R" Us, Sam's Club, Walgreens, Diapers.com, and many grocery-store chains) will give cash back—usually 5 percent of your tab. You can have the money transferred to a 529 plan or invested in a high-yield savings account, or you can request a check for college expenses when the time comes. "I registered all my credit cards," says Macomber. "Any purchases I make feed our account." Ask grandparents to register their credit cards at your account too.Savings About $2 per week
Shop less often
"The more time you spend in the store, the more unnecessary items you end up with," Petersik says. "We shop only twice a month, max." Once a year or so, she'll try to go 30 days without shopping for anything other than perishables (milk, fruit, and veggies). "We focus on cleaning out the freezer and pantry," Petersik says. "It helps us realize what foods we didn't eat."Savings About $10 per week
Whip up your baby food
"It takes me just an hour to make enough food for a full two weeks," Habershaw says. Madelyn likes her mom's meals, and the savings are tantalizing too. "A 5-ounce jar of baby vegetable puree costs around $1, but I'm able to make 12 ounces of puree with a $1.25 bag of frozen veggies."Savings About $5 per week
Bank coupon savings
Make a habit of eyeballing the "total saved" at the bottom of your grocery receipts and then promptly transfer that amount to your kids' 529 plans, as Kofke and his family do: "You'll be amazed at how quickly all those dollars can add up," he notes.Savings About $20 per week
Open a 529 account.
These state-sponsored tuition plans earn interest tax-free. They're backed by the state government but don't require your child to attend an in-state school. You're free to invest in any state's plan (be sure to compare tax advantages carefully because they vary). Visit CollegeSavings.org for more info.
Decide what to save.
If you put $10 a week in a 529 plan that seeks stock-market returns from the day your child is born until she's 17, you could have close to $14,000. If you can part with $25 a week, you could have $34,000. And a $100 a week will net you nearly $300,000. Pick a doable amount for now and gradually increase it.
Stick with it!
"Once you've decided what percentage you can put away, make it a regular routine by having the money automatically withdrawn from your bank account," advises Lisa J.B. Peterson, president of Lantern Financial, in Boston. But never let saving for college trump your retirement saving.
Give yourself a bonus with these creative ideas.
Commit 50 percent of every windfall.
Whether it's a tax refund or lottery winnings, earmark at least half for your child's 529 college savings plan. Use the next 30 percent to pay debt or bills, make a home repair, or tackle other necessary expenses, advises Chris Kimball, a financial planner with Prudential Financial's Northwest Financial Associates, in Lakewood, Washington. Blow the final 20 percent guiltlessly on dinner out, a vacation, or another indulgence.
Have a yard sale.
Sell your child's gently used or unopened gifts, toys, and clothes once a year at a yard sale or through an eBay store, and add whatever you earn to your family's tuition fund. The Petersiks raked in $425 at their garage sale last summer.
Shamelessly ask for a little help.
Let grandparents and other relatives know that you've opened a 529 plan. If they're considering a cash gift for the baby, ask them to make their check payable to the plan so the money can grow tax-free. In some states, this might disqualify you from getting the tax deduction; find details about each state's plan at CollegeSavings.org.
Money tends to fly out the window when you have a baby (diapers, whoosh! tiny cute clothes, whoosh!). Have an easier time trimming costs with these achievable steps.
Do the math.
Now that you know the real deal, deduct your total expenses from your take-home income. If you're in the black, gold star! But you're not through yet. Focus on setting aside enough to cover six months' worth of expenses in an emergency fund. Baby steps! Arrange an auto-deposit of, say, $100 a month to start, and bump it up over time.
Calculate your monthly expenses.
Mint.com can help you determine your fixed expenses (such as a mortgage or rent, car payments, college loans, and child care) and flexible expenses (costs that vary monthly, such as doctor visits and movie tickets).
Track every purchase.
That egg-and-cheese sandwich you bought en route to work; the Kindle Daily Deal you couldn't resist: There are loads of ways to blow your cash nonchalantly, and those micro purchases can really add up. Use an impulse-buy tracker such as the PocketMoney app to log every time money leaves your hands for a month.
Get a reality check.
Divide your expenses into categories (gas, food, etc.) and compare them. Most people think they're spending on necessities and don't realize how much is going to iTunes, blowouts, or coffee treats, says money pro Jameel Webb-Davis, of Medford, Massachusetts.
Cut back painlessly.
If you're running a deficit or barely breaking even, use an online calculator to figure out how much you must reduce your spending to start saving. Then decide how much you can snip from each flexible expense. Barely noticeable cutbacks can help you build a nice cushion.
Originally published in American Baby magazine in June 2011. Updated in August 2014.