Start Saving for College Today

Adults, can we have a conversation?

Less than 5 percent of Americans have college savings accounts, and those who do are far wealthier than average.

How Paying for College Is Changing Middle-Class Life, Caitlin Zaloom

How in the world are Kristen and I unicorns because we saved for college?

Look, we are pretty cool, but we just aren’t that particularly responsible people. We shouldn’t fit into the top 5% of people in any category. If you know us in person you know how completely average we are!

We started our kids 529 plans when they were in utero. At the time I was a college student myself, working full-time and trying to finish my degree full-time so I could quit my corporate job and go work at a church.

Starting a college savings account isn’t for the wealthy, it’s for poor people like me and you! And it’s not like my own parents were a great role model in this department. As much as my parents supported me and wanted me to go to college, they didn’t have money to help me pay for school. In fact, I meandered my way through undergrad and paid my own way, graduating debt free. (Despite what you hear, this is entirely possible today. But that’s another blog post for another day.)

It’s not as hard as it sounds. We started back in 2001 by saving $25/month. Literally, not having HBO or skipping a meal out each month. Did it hurt a little? Sure, when I left my corporate job I worked for a church for $32,000/year. We joke about it now but there were some lean times in there where we ate a lot of ramen, rice & beans, and veggies dropped off by church members from their gardens. But we kept that $25/month going. Then somewhere along the line we decided we could afford $40/month. Then $50/month. Then $50/pay period or $100/month. Then $75/pay period. And so on. It really hasn’t been that hard but it’s really added up.

And you know what? With our oldest heading off to college in just a couple weeks and, as long as costs hold reasonably steady, we’re going to be able to get her across the finish line for her undergrad degree debt free. Yes, she’ll have to contribute, too. But it’s entirely doable.

No doubt, she’ll take on debt in life. And if she goes to grad school she’ll take on a ton of debt herself. But we aren’t mortgaging her (or OUR) future to do it.

Again, we aren’t privileged. We aren’t rich. And we’re not particularly even good with money. We just weaseled away money every month.

Become a Unicorn and Start Today

I’m no different than you. My timeline on Facebook and Instagram is full of parents-to-be and new babies.

If you can afford a professional photographer to document your pregnancy and baby’s infancy… heck, if you can afford a smartphone to post pictures on Instagramyou can afford to start saving for college today.

We’re literally talking about the cost of a trip to Chipotle. Or, an avocado toast and mimosa brunch… yeah, I see you.

Stop the excuses and grow up.

It infuriates me that parents in every suburb in this country waste time and money investing more in soccer (or hockey) in some vain hope that their child will get an athletic scholarship while they have literally saved $0 for college.

Listen to me, very very few universities offer full rides for non-revenue sports. Most of the players, even at major universities, are maybe sharing a 1/10th scholarship for a sport like soccer. Even at top schools there may only be 2-3 full scholarship athletes in soccer. And let’s be real– your kid isn’t that good. So why in the world would you be able to afford to pay thousands of dollars to be on a travel team and thousands of dollars for a private position coach and NOT put thousands of dollars away for college? It’s literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

What’s happening is that you’ve been sold a lie by a soccer coach selling his services.

Just take that same money and put it in a college fund, sign your kid up for a rec league, they’ll be just as happy.

How do I start?

Pick a 529 plan and start putting $25/month in there like it’s a bill. For real, cancel HBO if you have to. It’s just not that much money. Ours comes right out of our checking account, I don’t even think about it.


Start a Roth IRA. Though you might need a minimum of $500 to kick that off. (Literally, an amazing baby shower gift! Ask your parents.)

Bonus tip!

Several years ago I started tricking myself into saving more for our kid’s college accounts. Any extra income I received, say from a speaking gig or a refund or something like that which was unbudgeted income… I just put half of it into my Roth IRA.

Want to know what’s crazy? That strategy has resulted in what amounts to a YEAR of college paid for. What the whhhhaaaaattttt?


Justice is a Funny Thing

Watching Megan go through the college admissions process has been really hard.

On the one hand, I fully get why we have quotas and the need for diversity. I support it. If I were an elected official I’d vote for affirmative action in college admissions every time. Why? Because achievement isn’t just a personal accomplishment it’s also the result of a system that benefits some more than others. As a result, to make things more equitable, you have to favor one group or class over those who may have been more privileged the whole time.

On the other hand, it sucks when your kid has worked her butt off and the simple reality is it probably won’t matter because the scales are tipped in favor of others.

In high school, she literally could not have done more. She went to the only high school she got into via the lottery system. She took the hardest schedule her school has ever produced, completing 4 years of math in 2, taking every AP class she could, every dual immersion class they offered, she’s a class officer, volunteered like crazy, and interned along the way. She got the highest PSAT, then SAT, in her school’s history. She’ll graduate with the highest GPA in the school’s history– a reluctant valedictorian. And while it doesn’t show up on her transcript in most of her classes she finished with far more than 100% because she did all the extra credit, too. Because that’s what she does. Everything.

Admissions officers will never know she did all of these things not because of her school’s amazing curriculum but despite its failures. Her counselor and the principal barely knew her name until the day she got her SAT’s back in the Spring of junior year. But they know her name now. So do their donors. In truth, she’s never had a science teacher for an entire year. So many teachers… Turnover in charters is a problem and boy has she suffered through it. By graduation only 2 teachers will remain from her first year. Maybe. Three different people taught her AP Chemistry class last year because they quit, got fired, or just dropped off the planet. Consequently, they only got through half the material. So when she wasn’t in China last summer she completely re-taught herself her AP Chemistry class, all by herself, so she’d be prepared to take the SAT subject test… which she did while we were on vacation. Of course, she did great on that too because that’s what she does.

Looking back, this kid couldn’t have done more. And she made it look easy. Fun almost.

I think it’s awesome when kids get into their dream schools. Children of immigrants, refugee kids, kids who were homeless, or in foster care, or disadvantaged because of their race, ethnicity, gender identity. I cry when I watch videos of those kids opening up their emails and learning that their dream school selected them.

But my kid has dreams too, you know? I long to watch her celebrate like the kids in those videos. I want her to know that all that hard work has paid off. She too is hoping one of those big, fancy schools selects her. And who knows? Maybe they will? But probably not.

Over the past few months I’ve watched her pour herself into selecting the right schools for the right reasons, working tirelessly on essays– pulling all-nighters, getting recommendations, and everything else while raising her GPA even higher and managing an internship.

I say all of this because it’s been hard to watch Megan navigate an admissions system that, because of reasons we intellectually agree with, is built to favor things she can’t change about herself. She’s done all of the work but this system isn’t built as a meritocracy, it simply doesn’t favor her. She’s too normal. She’s just another middle class white girl with perfect everything. Dime a dozen.

And so we wait. She gets it. We get it. I get it.

But it’s hard.

Justice is a Funny Thing


I wrote this angsty little essay on January 4th, 2019 as a reflection on all of the effort that goes into just applying to colleges. At the time she had submitted everything and was just beginning two months of waiting.

I decided to hold the essay instead of publishing it in the moment so that the dust could settle on the process. I’m glad I did.

Ultimately, she was accepted at 5 of the 11 schools she applied to. 5 acceptances, 5 rejections, 1 waitlist. Everything is peachy.


Now that college admissions season is over

College admissions season is officially over until October. 

Having gone through it for the first time I can confirm a few things: 

  1. The college admissions system is broken from top to bottom. 
  2. There’s no silver bullet or obvious solution for fixing it on the horizon.
  3. It’s way more complex than it should be.
  4. It’s way more competitive than it should be. 
  5. That complexity and competition is the perfect recipe for cheating. 
  6. Outside observers decry it all as silly, that it really doesn’t matter, but in actually we all have to acknowledge it really does matter. Where you go to undergrad and grad school can have massive implications on your life. We all know that so let’s stop pretending. And it’s exactly the “it’s silly” attitude that provides the cover for the cheating. 

I’ve been relatively quiet about this, but I’ve got a few things to publish here on the blog about it now that the dust has settled.


College Admissions Process Reflection

Yesterday, our eldest child received the last of her college admission decisions. She was with a friend and after she sent us texts to update and react to the decision the next thing she sent us was, “It’s over!” Amen. Hallelujah. 

This process is technically from October to March 31st, but in actuality it started probably a year earlier. So getting this phase of it over with feels great for everyone. 

Process Reflection

Here are my reflections and reactions on where we are after this phase of the process. (With her actually making a decision over the next few weeks excluded.) 

  • A test of parenting adolescents: I can see how it’s easy to over or under parent this process. We stayed engaged but we didn’t take it over. As independent as she is, she needed some parenting at times, encouragement often. But there’s a big difference between being there for them to offer input and expecting them to navigate it on their own. I feel like what we offered her was support, encouragement, and accountability. I’m glad we didn’t get in the way or do it for her. But I’m also glad we laid down some boundaries, too. 
  • Put your heart into it. It’s not easy seeing your kid get their feelings hurt. Since she really wanted to go to all the places she applied to, when the rejections came they hurt. And that’s OK. But at the same time, when those acceptances came, it felt great. That’s real life. You don’t know what success feels like if you don’t experience failure. 
  • Run your own race: Everyone puts expectations on you in this process. Teachers, who are hugely influential, want you to apply to the schools they went to or dreamt of attending. At conferences last Fall various teachers told me 4 different schools she should apply to. (I think she applied to 3 of them, that’s the power of teacher influence.) I kept thinking, “Does she even want to go to these places or is just because a teacher pushed it?” Also, your parents have their aspirations. I mean, she’s smarter than us, so we want to see her go somewhere awesome, too! Friends at school are like, “You’re the smartest person I know, you should go to Harvard.” Into all of this you need to ask yourself, “What do I want to do? Where do I want to live? Where do I see myself next year?” Because the reality is that all of those expectations put on you don’t matter and none of those people are going to live in that dorm next year with you. All that matters is finding the best place for your next step in life. It’s like running a race. Chances are you aren’t going to win. But if you concentrate on running your best race you’ll be satisfied with the results. 
  • She has her integrity. At the end of the day, the kids applying to the tippy top schools are statistically all the same. They all have perfect GPAs, all have stellar SAT/ACTs, all did dual enrollment, all of them are in the top 5% of their graduating classes. They would all do well at an Ivy League school or top research university. So the decisions are really about other things. Your race/gender/”hook”, your intended major, your extra curricular activities, and your essays. Three of those things you can either flat out lie about, exaggerate, or cheat on to bolster your admissions possibilities. (Facts only.) I felt like she undersold most of her extra curriculars and we could have helped her more on her essays… but she felt like that was cheating and we backed off. It didn’t matter to her that other people had help with their essays or someone to plump up those ECs, what mattered to her was that her apps were fully her and her words, chips fall where they may. I respect that a ton. 
  • She learned something fun on Ivy Day. She got the best result from an application that she spent the least amount of time on. She even felt like the interview went meh. For someone who tries really hard on everything I love that she learned the lesson that sometimes you succeed when you just wing it. Procrastinators unite!
  • Don’t worry about the money. For real. Ignore the sticker. Unless you are rich you aren’t going to pay that full tuition/room & board. For example, the average tuition/room & board for the places Megan was accepted is $38,321.50. But the average of what we’d actually pay is $14,115. This is actually getting better as more and more schools are embracing a “no loan guarantee”. This means that when you do FAFSA you won’t be asked to take out loans beyond your expected family contribution. (Great news for savers like us.) 
  • Celebrate those acceptances! March is a gauntlet of acceptance and rejections. We went out and celebrated every acceptance with a dinner and I’m glad we did. 
  • Don’t hate the rejections. Since she only applied to schools she legitimately liked, getting rejected hurt a little but she doesn’t hate them. In fact, most of them she’ll probably apply to for grad school. 
  • It really does feel random. Since admissions officers are building a diverse class that’ll fit into their institutions… who actually gets admitted where really does feel random. It’s about so much more than stats. That’s why it’s so important that your essays are seen as a way to share your personality, not a way to parrot back to them what you think they want to hear from their admissions presentation. (Every admissions presentation said this. Listen to them.)
  • It really is a game. “Are private schools targeting top students they likely will not accept just to get the $70 application fee?” In our experience, yep. Not just for the $70 but also because the more people they reject the better their reputation/rankings get. I’m not being cynical but that’s how the game is played. Knowing what we know now we’d absolutely do everything the same.

The Role of Pruning in Parenting

Recently, I splurged on nice gardening pruners.

I had an old pair, maybe from a garage sale or purchased 15 years ago, but they were worn out and dull and didn’t work quite right.