Listening to experts talk about how much college will cost five or 10 years from now is enough to make any parent pause in panic. It's easy to think, "There is no way I can save that much!" Relax. You don't have to. Instead of thinking that you have to save the entire predicted cost of college for your kids, commit to saving some. With small, dedicated contributions, your child's college savings account will grow.
And even if it isn't all that he or she will need to afford an advanced degree, it can help defray the cost of going to college. Just socking away $25 a month in a tax-free 529 college savings plan like the one offered by MESP can be a big help. Wondering where to start? The trick is making little "swaps" or cuts each month to get into a routine of feeding that account. Here are some small steps that can make a big difference.
1. Brown bag it.
Commit to carving out a bit of time in the morning or night before to put together lunches. It saves cafeteria cash (not to mention, you can run better quality control). A warehouse club membership can clip costs on bulk items, like frozen foods and longer-lasting condiments/canned products.
2. Pique your Pinterest.
Got an urge to shop? Let the photo-sharing website help. Tack impulse buys to a virtual pin board, suggests the editor-in-chief of TheNest.com. Check back in a week or two and see if you still want it. Similarly, teach kids to wait a few days before making bigger purchases, too.
3. I'll drink to that!
Brew your own coffee or tea whenever possible. Skip the bottled juices and go for less-expensive frozen concentrate – just add water. (Pour into small bottles and you can scrap pricey juice boxes, too). And get your family some good water bottles and go with the tap.
4. These boots were made for lastin'.
Shoes are worth the elbow grease – especially for active kids, or when they've settled into a size. Invest in a pack of heel savers, spray protector for suede or rubber boots for rain, notes SavingAdvice.com, and always wear socks with sneakers. Scrub or buff shoes every so often – and sprinkle in baking powder to freshen things up.
5. Temperature adjustment.
If you don't have one, get a programmable thermostat. Set the temp lower at night and when no one's home. For roughly $40, it can save you a cool $180 a year in energy costs, according to EnergyStar.gov.
6. Care for your car.
Keeping up on oil changes can keep your engine tuned to improve gas mileage by an average 4 percent (even proper tire inflation helps), notes FuelEconomy.gov. And, to avoid pricey surprises, commit to a good mechanic and regular "checkups."
7. Cable, phones and web.
Do you really need all 300 channels? Are you using VoIP or your mobile phone more than your landline? Scale back. Ask your provider to renegotiate your services or rates (point out if you're a long-time, committed customer). Maybe even scrap cable all together for Netflix.
8. Barter babysitting.
Parent date nights are important. But every hour could tack an extra $10 on the meter. Consider running childcare "trade" with friends. Check your playgroup or kids' friends' parents, to start.
9. Always shop with a list.
Whether groceries, clothing, accessories, tools or bigger-ticket items like furniture, keep tabs on what you need. Prioritize, watch for sales and consider grabbing certain items at garage sales. Got a smartphone? Browse the "list" apps and pick one you love. Be efficient, too: Less loitering in stores lowers odds you'll grab a novelty item on a whim.
10. Second-life clothing.
It's a constant cycle: Little kids outgrow stuff fast, and older kids' fashion tastes flip in a blink. To keep up (or cast off), take advantage of local consignment resale shops or mom-to-mom sales (peek at the Metro Parent weekly roundup of mom-to-mom sales for the latest).
11. YouTube tutorials.
It's not the only game in town, but this video-sharing site teems with DIY how-tos, from home projects and repairs to tips on gardening and even nursing tech gadgets back to health. It's definitely worth a gander, in many cases, before calling the pricier professionals.
12. Don't fear coupons.
Clueless where to begin? Try the Metro Parent roundup of manageable coupon advice. It's a great beginner's guide, from southeast Michigan blogs for area bargains to hints on organizing and digitizing your stash. Consider it realistic (not "extreme") couponing.
13. Trim beauty, grooming costs.
Be a "recessionista," as Mint.com puts it, by saving on certain cosmetics with short shelf life (mascara) or lots of color options (lipstick and eye shadow); splurge on foundation (face is sensitive) and blush (lasts a few years). In other areas: A good brush is worth the extra bucks; shampoos and conditioners, not so much.
14. 'Tis (not) the season.
Buy clothing and accessory staples off-season to save cash. More specifically, says online shopping assistant Shop It To Me: August-September a prime time for deals – and February (especially Presidents Day) comes in first with discounts, as deep as 47 percent.
15. Stockpile supplies.
For heavy-demand items that need constant replenishing, from paper goods to soap and detergent, build up a stash. Be savvy about those sales and coupons – or, if you belong to a wholesale club, consider going part-sies with another parent, friend or family member.
16. Cheaper fun.
A movie ticket averages $8 these days (less snacks). That adds up! Sleuth out less-expensive options. Southeast Michigan is packed with play areas, library programs and nature trails – all free (check out the Metro Parent calendar for even more). Check Groupon and LivingSocial for big bargains on skating, laser tag, bowling and other attractions. Never underestimate an old-school family game or movie night.
17. The gift of love.
This is turf where it's tempting to overspend – but rarely necessary. Employ this simple philosophy from Bankrate.com: "Give small gifts with large love notes." Opt for a thoughtful little token of your affection with a heartfelt (preferably handmade!) card that expresses your feelings with pictures or words. It's the stuff we hang onto, after all, right?
18. Credit card cleanup.
Assess your house of cards. Keep up on payments to avoid fees. Never pay the bare minimum, never pay late and don't buy stuff you don't need. If you've got too many, you might consider closing out plastic with a zero balance – but only if your credit is solid, notes Experian.com (check with a financial consultant if you need advice).
19. Batteries and school stuff.
Believe it or not, these two items (which stack up for families, between toys and, well, school!) are pretty much always free – after a mail-in rebate, says Mint.com. Sign up for the enewsletter to your favorite office-supply store to stay in the know.
20. Eating out.
Cut it, reduce it – or just really think about it in advance. After all, at a sit-down meal, a family's tab can hit $60 in no time. When possible, cash in on "kids eat free" bargains. And, at home, opt for carryout vs. delivery. Your hungry college savings plan will thank you.