When I had my first daughter I was barely an adult. 3 years later, when my eldest son was born, I was, well, only 3 years older. As a young mother I was always looking for advice and assurances I was doing it right. I did what my mother, grandmother and countless expert writers suggested because they surely knew more than I did. I was after all, the furthest thing from an expert. Now, 22 years later and raising a 2 year old, I'm still not an expert. But I do have some idea of what worked and what didn't. The college fund is one of those things that just didn't work.
Even though my mother insisted it was the thing to do, my parents did not have a college fund for me. They had a savings account that they put the child support checks my father sent and told me it was for college. (My father's entire child support contribution for the entirety of my childhood was less than $1000, which is considerably more than my kids ever got.) I started adding to it when I was about 14 but it never made it to college. When I first moved out, the entire fund disappeared into a beat up old car and the security deposit on a one bedroom apartment. I went to college piecemeal, taking nearly 10 years to complete it before finally giving in and taking out loans for the final push. In the meantime, I put away money for my daughter and later my son, determined that they would have an easier time. But that was a huge mistake.
When my son was in 5th grade I realized how pointless the college fund was. Here I was, a single mom, scraping together enough money to put $5 here $20 there into two "college" savings accounts when I suddenly realized that my son, preparing to enter middle school, was at a 3rd grade level in mathematics. His school just pushed him ahead, year after year without saying anything. I needed to hire him a tutor and fast, but where would the money come from? College fund? No. I couldn't. That money was sacred. It was for college. Nothing else. But I soon came to realize I had no alternative and, for the first time, I took money out of the untouchable college fund. After the "breaking of the seal", I realized that the money I was carefully stashing away for "one day" could have better been used for a dozen todays. If I had used that money to put him in the summer math program we couldn't afford in the years before, we may never have run into these issues!
So thereafter the "college fund" was used to pay for summer school and school trips and drum lessons instead. And now that he's 18 and my daughter is 21 and I don't regret it. He's had a job for two years and is entering his Senior year of High School. He will be perfectly capable of paying for his own college classes next year, assuming he stays at home. And since he's considering joining the military that will only help further.(I am encouraging him to go to college first. And we don't agree on which branch either, but ultimately it's his decision.) My daughter got a scholarship and went to college for free for awhile before she decided to pursue other opportunities.
Before I came to my senses, my kids never went to summer camp because we couldn't afford it. But a year of stashing away cash would have made it happen. They never went on school trips (I mean big trips, not $10 field trips, those they went on) because we couldn't afford it. Music lessons, dance lessons, sports teams, scouts -in other words childhood, was all either sporadic or non-existent depending on my income, but that payment into the "college fund" was sacred. And really stupid.
My youngest son has no college fund. What he has is a childhood fund. We put money into it from every paycheck to pay for those things that will come up as well as swimming lessons, art and music classes, summer camp, school trips, tutors, summer school, whatever. College we will worry about when the time comes. Right now, we're saving for childhood. If we have some left over to send him on his way with, we will consider that a bonus. But it is not the goal.
Now if I had enough money to save for both, I would. Since I'm getting way too old to continue ignoring the very real probability that I will need to have some savings to live on for some time after I am too old and/or feeble to make an income, I need to start thinking about my own future. College will sort itself out and when the time comes, he must participate in sorting it out. Childhood is my responsibility.
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