How Are We Going To Pay For College . . . With Five Kids?

Reactions to our news about expecting twins, when we already have three young kids, have been pretty interesting.  There is usually a bit of shock, followed by one or more of the following questions: (1) are you going to move, (2) are you going to buy a new vehicle, and (3) how are you going to pay for college with such a large family?  The twins were a surprise, but whether we ended up with four or five children, it would still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to take on the entire cost of a college education.  We have a plan, consistent with our new financial priorities and definition of success, for how our children will be able to attend college.  And, it doesn’t involve any type of regular contribution to investment accounts.



In a recent conversation with a coworker, he told me about cashing out part of his 401K to pay for his children to attend private universities.  He seemed shocked when I matter-of-factly retorted that we do not plan on paying for college for our children.  I went on to explain how neither of my parents helped with the cost of college, and that I am still paying off my undergrad and graduate school.  One of these days I have to look through some old bills to figure it out, buy I believe my loans totaled close to $100,000 right after graduation.  Why would I want my kids to go through the same hardship as me?  Well, I definitely don’t want that for them.  At the same time, we don’t believe that the cost of college should be entirely on parents.  What is our plan?  The short answer is that we don’t plan on paying for our children to attend college, but that doesn’t mean that they will have to rely entirely on student loans.


Kids Should Help Pay For College

Studies show that the kids who attend college with a free ride thanks to their parents party more and have lower grades.  My children will help pay for their education, so they feel like they have a personal investment at stake.

Ideally, I would like the kids to work part-time jobs, before and during college.  A portion of their earnings can be used as spending money, but some of it should be earmarked for college tuition/expenses.  Colleges usually offer various types of work-study programs as well.  I always worked at least one part-time job during undergrad and graduate school.  One of my jobs was scrubbing pots and pans in the dining hall.  And you know what?  I was still able to have fun, participate in Cheerleading, and graduated with honors from both schools.

College can be pretty expensive.  However, as we adjust our life to pay off debt, it’s become abundantly clear that huge gains can result from a bunch of small efforts.  One way that kids can keep college costs down is by contributing even a small amount of earnings towards their bills each semester.


People Overlook Scholarships

I don’t remember applying to many scholarships as a high school senior.  It seemed like that type of financial aid was reserved for valedictorians and sports stars.  However, there are so many different resources out there and many of them receive only a few applications.  Private organizations (ex. Rotary Club), employers, and non-profits offer many scholarships.  However, colleges offer a wide variety of scholarships too.  The trick is to do your research and locate each and every one that is applicable to your unique demographics, skills, and/or interests.


People Underestimate State Schools

There are very limited circumstances in which your career trajectory is determined by the ranking of the educational institution that you attend.  For the vast majority of us, other factors determine our opportunities.  I believe that many kids (and their parents) get caught up in the status associated with private colleges.  Snap out of it people – impressing others is not worth your hard-earned money!!!  Of course, it may just be that Mom or Dad are alumni and expect their children to attend the same school that gave them so many good memories.

Families should take a step back and perform an honest cost-benefit analysis when deciding between schools.  Private schools can easily double the cost of your child’s college education.  There is also the option to attend a public school for the first year or two of undergraduate studies, to fulfill your general educational requirements and then transfer to the more-prestigious university.


Creative Ways To Help Your Children Pay For College

I wish that I could give proper credit to the source of this idea.  Someone once told me about he or she had purchased a house near the college their child planned to attend.  Their child then moved in with a bunch of friends, who rented rooms from the parent.  Not only did the child have a place to stay for free, but Mom and/or Dad were enjoying the benefits of a renal property for years to come.

Unfortunately, this idea will be difficult to execute with five children – if they go to five different schools, we probably can’t afford to buy five rental properties.  But I always thought that it was a great strategy for a family who already has an interest in investing in rental property.

It’s also worth pointing out that your children can take advantage of being able to live at home to save money, if they choose to attend a local college.


They May Not Need A College Degree

I know, that statement probably sounds crazy to a lot of people.  But here’s the thing: I don’t want my kids to attend four years (or more) of college, just for the sake of getting a degree if it’s meaningless to their long-term goals.

Traditional ideas about college and careers are changing.  I sometimes think about how, if I could go back, I would be more strategic about taking classes instead of just sticking to a standard curriculum checklist.  If my kids have specific interests and goals, they should take those classes best suited for their aspirations.  They shouldn’t pay to attend classes that won’t provide them with any value in their future.


Minimal Use Of Loans

My children will likely need to rely on some loans in order to pay for their education, and I’m okay with that.  College isn’t just about knowledge learned from class, it should also teach kids how to be self-sufficient adults.  Taking on a limited amount of debt in exchange for the benefit of their education can be a practical learning experience about finances.

The problem is the current state of student loans. Young people lacking financial know-how are convinced to sign up for more than they need in financial aid.  I distinctly remember always being informed of the maximum amount that could be borrowed – and always took out exactly that much.  The amounts above and beyond tuition were to be used for books and “living expenses.”  There were even discussions about little tricks for getting even more, like claiming you needed to purchase a computer.

While I’m not counting on it, I definitely hope that the cost of college education changes in the next ten years.  With my children taking out a limited amount of college loans, I plan to provide some guidance during the decision-making process. I want to help them figure out the minimum amount necessary and plan ahead for the repayment process.


Final Thoughts

We hope to be semi-retired by the time that the children start applying for college.  Our low income should help them receive financial aid to cover at least part of their expenses.

We do want to help the kids get a good start on their adult life.  At the same time, however, we want them to be responsible and invested in their future.  College seems to have become more of a standard phase of life than an accomplishment, at least for the middle class.  Kids should not grow up thinking their parents owe them a free ride at a private university.  They should earn their degree.

Ultimately, I could see us helping the kids out with buying books or even contributing a little bit towards their tuition expenses.  But the majority of our assistance will be guidance and advice, rather than money.




  1. My husband and I both went to private schools. Him, because his family was crazy 😉 Me, because it was actually cheaper than public school (WAY more scholarship opportunities). My parents picked up part of the tab, but the majority was covered by scholarships and school/work program in the tutoring center and later on the school newspaper.

    I think it’s a really personal decision, and you do what’s best for your family! The most important thing is to PLAN AHEAD. Of course, you’ve got that down pat!
    Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies recently posted…What’s in a Name?My Profile

    1. Hi Penny! Thanks for your input about private college. It sounds like you really did your “homework” in figuring out the costs and benefits of the school you chose to attend. Planning ahead will definitely make all the difference.

      It’s just been really surprising how many people assume that it’s a parent’s responsibility to totally fund college for their kids. Of course you want to help your kids if you can, but at 18 they’re supposed to be adults, right?

  2. I have no intention of covering 100% of the costs. We will help, but probably no more than half the rate of a state school. There is a community college here that is crazy affordable. As soon as they are teenagers, they will be working to save, and we will help match those savings. I think it is super important they have some skin in the game. And the maturity to plan ahead for the cost.
    Ms. Montana recently posted…16 Reasons to become Financially IndependentMy Profile

    1. It sounds like we have pretty similar ideas about paying (or not paying) for college. Community colleges are a great option, especially if kids want to pursue more of a skill-based occupation. Nice to hear from you 🙂

      1. Ours has a really cool option to do your first two years with agreements with all the state schools that the credits will transfer 100%. I think tuition is about $5,000 a year. And it has super generous scholarships. So even if they want to do other kinds of majors, they will have all the prerequisites done. Our state schools in Montana are very reasonable as well. ($8k-$12k a year) With a little bit of help from us, scholarships, work, and financial aid, there is no reason they should have more than $10k of debt for their undergrad.
        Ms. Montana recently posted…16 Reasons to become Financially IndependentMy Profile

  3. I plan to pay 100% of the costs. It isn’t their fault we make too much money to qualify for financial aid. My parents paid 100% of our costs but they were relatively low income so I got a lot of aid at my private undergrad and they had oversaved for me. Those savings meant they had leftover for my sister’s more expensive experience at her uni.

    I am not worried about them not taking school seriously because they love learning and take it seriously now. Just like I did.

    Situations are different and individual. And, likely, with five kids if they’re close enough in age you will get financial aid from having multiple kids in school at the same time.
    Nicoleandmaggie recently posted…The Last Mortgage PaymentMy Profile

    1. I expect that we will have a lower income, so our kids will qualify for financial aid – and good point about multiple kids in school at the same time.

      Everyone is certainly entitled to make their own decisions about how to use their money. However, I would suggest that you ask yourself why you’re making such a huge financial commitment without even considering the alternatives. Is it just because you are carrying on a precedent set by your parents? Would it be so bad to ask your children to make some sort of contribution to the education that will provide them with a career for their adult lives? I’m not saying that you should reach any specific conclusion. My hope is just to encourage others to ask themselves questions about true motives when it comes to money, instead of just relying on assumptions about what is “normal.”

      1. Because I like being upper middle class a lot. So does DH. Education is what got us here. Being low income is stressful and it sucks. We want them to stay privileged.

        Also we value education even aside from the earnings potential. And our kids are smart and curious.

        DC1 currently has over 100k in his 529 and DC2 has 40k in hers. We are putting away 500-750/month for each kid. This is not a hardship for us.

        Like you say, everyone is entitled to their own choices, and these are ours. I am also well aware of actual research on financial contributions and schooling and know that kids are more likely to finish college if it is paid for and that working more than 10 hours a week is bad for outcomes ( working ~10 seems to be good).

        My choices are not a referendum on yours, but perhaps you’ve not considered alternatives and are just doing what your parents did? I’m pretty sure having kids go into debt for college is normal.
        Nicoleandmaggie recently posted…Ask the Grumpies: Do I need to see a financial planner about a 300K inheritance?My Profile

        1. Thanks for coming back and continuing this conversation 🙂

          It’s awesome that you can save so much money to help your children with their education, without it being a hardship. I see from your blog that you’re considering the possibility of private schools for your children. We value education too (I have a doctorate degree obtained from a state school), but know that there are so many different options out there – and that the most expensive choice won’t necessarily be the right one for our kids.

          As far as the debt goes, I don’t want my children to take on anything close to the tens of thousands of dollars in debt that I continue to pay off in my mid-thirties. Instead, my hope is that we can work with the kids to find ways that they can obtain a good education, that will help them pursue their interests, but without taking on significant student loans.

          I might consider alternatives like 100k in a 529 plan for each child . . . if that were actually a possibility for our family. However, we have to be realistic about our options. For now, debt is the focus. Then, we’ll see what we can do to help them follow their dreams.

  4. I commend you for your common sense approach. It’s one thing if you have the kind of money where paying for college educations does not put a strain on your budget or your future. More often than not, though, it creates a hardship for parents. Or at the least, it puts their retirement in serious jeopardy. Any kid who truly wants to go to college can figure out a way to fund it either via loans, scholarships, or working through school. If his or her parents can help, that’s gravy.
    Mrs Groovy recently posted…The Real Culture WarMy Profile

    1. Thank you Mrs. Groovy. Exactly! Kids should have to do some work to attend college, instead of just assuming that their parents will take care of it. A little help is nice, but shouldn’t be an obligation.

  5. I got no parental help paying for college and grad school, and I absolutely took it more seriously than many of my peers. Your kids will also have the benefit of being well-loved and that will make a ton of difference.

  6. Cindy

    I am a former college instructor and academic counselor from a state university. One of the things that many students and families are not aware of, is that there are a great deal of scholarship opportunities available year-round. In addition, just because a student has already earned one scholarship for the semester, doesn’t mean they are not eligible for additional scholarships. Many scholarship opportunities are available last minute, because money was allocated last minute, or not all recipients chose to accept the award (or dropped out!). Always have students check with their academic advisers and the academic dean, directly. If the school has an internship or co-op education department, check there as well.

    Another opportunity to keep in mind is that many schools -public and private- offer tuition waivers (tuition remission) for children of employees. My sister-in-law worked as a department admin assistant and put both of her kids through 4 years of undergrad and 2 years of grad school using this method. One child went to the school she worked at, for undergrad. The other did not, but was still able to get $-for-$ tuition matching reimbursement. For grad school, both kids went out of state and still got tuition remission. Sweet deal, if you can find it!

    1. These are great tips! Thank you so much for the information, Cindy. I definitely plan on helping my kids search for as many scholarships as possible – it’s one way I can provide assistance, without just handing over a check. Also, doing some teaching is on my bucket list/list of dreams, so maybe I can plan on doing that around the time that the kids start attending college . . . a win-win situation for sure!

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