It seems like I blinked, and our oldest child, Abby, went from a newborn to college. I still can't believe this major family milestone has come and gone, and let me tell you, it's been a whirlwind of emotions.
As we got Abby settled in on move-in day, I couldn't help but notice that there were basically two kinds of parents on campus. There were those who looked extremely stressed and frazzled, and those who looked contented and happy. Everyone's a little emotional, of course, but this clear distinction between parents got me thinking about the importance of preparation for the big day.
What can you do to make sure that your child's transition into college is as comfortable and relaxed as possible, not only emotionally, but financially?
Pack everything ahead of time
Packing for a dorm room seems like a major undertaking. The list of things to bring is pretty predictable, yet extensive. I suggest starting a list months in advance so that every time you think of something (clips for the potato chip bag, cable wire for the TV, a shoe tree to hang in the closet, etc.) you can add it on. Combined with the list the school provides and any Googling you do, this makes things really easy. Another useful trick is to set a shopping and packing deadline: We had ours three days before move-in day, and let me tell you, it was one of the best ideas we've ever had -- though I have to admit I can't take credit for this one, as my wife Sally, was the real architect of the plan.
The night before we left, I packed up the car, just so I knew everything would fit. On the big day our stress levels were low and we had a calm and peaceful morning (I have to say though, if our SUV had been stolen our whole family's stress level would have gone up just a little!).
The same concept works for financial preparation. Start a 529 savings plan as early as possible, and be systematic and conscientious about contributing to it. It's just like making the shopping list ahead of time. I can't tell you what a relief it is to know that we have resources set aside for Abby's education -- even though it's money that we've saved over the years, it feels like a scholarship, and the tax-free growth was the best part of all.
So what's a 529 plan? It's a tax-advantaged college savings vehicle sponsored by states, their agencies, and educational institutions. While you don't get federal income tax breaks on contributions, any distributions for higher education are federal tax-free, and many states give additional tax breaks for participants. They are really the best way to go when it comes to setting money aside and enjoying tax-free growth, but be sure to speak to your financial advisor for all the pros and cons.
If you want to get started, go to Saving For College, which has information about different 529 plans and how to set one up. If you're unsure of whether to go direct or through an advisor, take a look at my recent article on the subject.
Don't forget to pack a toolbox
If I had known how many people would forget basic tools -- like a screwdriver, pliers, and a box-knife, just to name a few -- I would have opened a kiosk in the parking lot. Having the right tools for the job is an age-old piece of common wisdom, however, unless you prepare ahead of time it can be far too easy to forget.
The same goes for having the right tools to pay for college. I said it before and I'll say it a hundred times: Start early and contribute often to your 529 plan. Ask any parent who has done it and they'll tell you that simply getting the ball rolling on college savings brings enormous peace of mind later on.
Preparation is more than savings, though. Help give your child the tools to cope with being on their own by explaining concepts like budgeting, banking, and how to stay organized. We all know they'll roll their eyes at our lectures, but they need to hear them! The more they know ahead of time, the less there is to learn -- because there is a lot to learn no matter what. In those first days, your child is thinking about everything from where to keep her toiletries, to how the meal-plan works, to meeting new friends and learning where her classrooms are. Help reduce stress by sending your child to school with basic and important skills.
This goes for emotions as well. That first night away from home is a major milestone for parents and kids alike, and even the most prepared family can get intimidated, frightened, or overwhelmed. After all, college is a major life transition. Try to help yourself and your child prepare by instilling emotional tools like independence and an ability to handle new situations.
While that first night is tough on everybody, an emotional toolbox of coping skills and confidence will go a long way.
Take the lead
On move-in day, the stressed parents invariably had stressed kids. So, manage your emotions and take the lead. Think of yourself as an exemplary Chairman of the Board, providing a good example and giving guidance and advice -- but letting your child take the role of CEO. Staying calm and focused can help mitigate a lot of stress.
Once again, it comes back to preparation and thinking ahead. Would you go shopping and pack the night before your child goes off to college? Of course not -- and the same should go for college savings. Start as early as possible and make it a point to take the lead in your child's education. The reward will be lower stress later on, so you can focus on guiding him or her into the next chapter of life.
Stay in the picture without hovering
It's so hard to come home from dropping your child off... and knowing she's not there. But we made it a point not to place our own emotions on our daughter, who has enough on her plate as she starts a new life at school. Instead, we decided to focus on reminding her of how proud we are and that we're always here for her. She knows she can call, FaceTime, Snapchat, or text anytime, but that we're confident in her ability to take on this transition.
This kind of restraint is hard to exercise. From the beginning, you want to protect your wobbly toddler from painful falls, insulate your middle-schooler from tricky social situations, and (if you're like me) you might have to fight the urge to lock your teenager in the house. But your child has to experience life on their own: All you can do is focus on giving them the tools to cope with different situations and instill the confidence to know they can do it and hope for the best. Certainly, my wife and I try to lead by example.
It takes a lot of time and commitment, and possibly some awkward conversations, but at the end of move-in day, all you can do is give a big hug goodbye and say, "We are so proud of you, and we love you so much!"
Finally... Pay it forward!
Even if you don't have kids or sent them off to school long ago, more parents should know about the importance of college savings. Help your friends and loved ones get started by encouraging them to think ahead for their child's future. Whether it's by passing this article along or setting up a 529 account for your grandchild, you can help make that eventual transition to college so much easier.
Have you gone through move-in day? I'd love to hear your story. Were you prepared? How did your kids handle the change?