Small, Simple Steps to College Savings

Try these 20 doable ways you can save $25 a month for those future tuition bills.

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 — and tossing in a dose of preventative medicine — 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 the 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, too, like frozen foods and longer-lasting condiments and 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. 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 a less-expensive frozen concentrate — just add water. (Pour into small bottles and you can scrap pricey juice boxes, to boot). 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

You don’t have to be a gearhead. Stay up to date on oil changes — and use the manufacturer-recommended type for your car, notes FuelEconomy.gov. Also, the site advises keeping your engine tuned to improve gas mileage by an average 4 percent (even proper tire inflation helps). 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 your mobile phone more than your landline? Scale back. Politely ask your provider to renegotiate your services or rates (point it out if you’re a long-time, committed customer). Maybe scrap cable all together for Netflix? Look at your family’s habits and see what makes sense.

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. Browse your phone’s 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 change in a blink. To keep up (or cast off), take advantage of local consignment resale shops or mom-to-mom sales. Got a good network? Arrange regular fashion swaps.

11. YouTube tutorials

It’s not the only game in town, but this video-sharing site is filled with DIY how-tos, from home projects and repairs to tips on gardening and how to nurse tech gadgets back to health. It’s definitely worth a gander, in many cases, before calling the pricier professionals.

12. Trim beauty, grooming costs

Try Mint.com‘s tips to save 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.

13. Don’t fear coupons

Clueless where to begin? Get some manageable advice at MetroParent.com/CouponTips. 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.

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 is 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 but don’t expire, 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

An adult movie ticket can cost up to $10 these days (less snacks). That adds up! Sleuth out less-expensive options. Metro Detroit is packed with play areas, library programs and nature trails — all free. 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 cost $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.

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