Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Journey to Debt Free College

(This post was originally published in 2014. Since then, two of my sons have graduated from high school. I added a postscript at the end of this article, updating you on their lives, careers, and whether they were able to attend college debt free.) 

Our oldest is a senior and plans to attend college with no debt.  Here is what we have learned, thus far, in our journey to higher education.  As we get closer, I’ll have to report on our progress. 

1)  Be VERY clear with your student at an early age as to what, if any, help he/she can expect from you and your spouse.  Whether you plan to give them $2000 (or $200) upon graduation from high school, let them know well ahead of time.  If you expect them to foot the entire cost of a higher education, this is fine, as long as they know it well in advance.  It saves on unmet expectations or hurt feelings if you are very open from the beginning.  

 2)  Our community college will be a GREAT help in cutting costs for the first two years.  He has easily saved enough to fund this through a part-time summer job.  Additionally, he'll save money during the first two years of his college experience by living at home and continuing to work that part-time job.   Every penny counts toward the ultimate goal of transferring to a 4 year university.  

3)  Fill out FAFSA in January.  Even if you need to estimate your income, fill out your initial papers on-line as close to January 1st as you can.  This “holds” your place in line and puts your “file date” as the date you initiated the file for that year.  So, if you begin the paperwork on January 1st, and you amend your income amount on March 1st, your “file date” is still January 1st.  Since some funds are given out on a “first come, first served basis”, you have obtained and maintained your “early file” place in line.  (NOTE - You can now fill out FAFSA as early at October 1st.  It will use your taxes of the previous year for calculation.  If your financial status has changed greatly, finish filling out FAFSA and then call the financial aid office at the colleges which your student is interested in attending.) 

 4)  Research EARLY!  Go to college fairs with your student as early at their freshman or sophomore year.  Reps love to see eager faces.  Find out EXACTLY what those colleges want to see on your student's transcript.  Most 2 year colleges sponsor a bi-annual “college fair” night.  If your child is interested in a Christian college, check to find a free Christian college fair near you. 

 5)  Ask questions!!  Answers are free!  We discovered that a 4 year college, which is about 30 minutes from our home, has a GREAT working relationship with our community 2 year college.  There is a rep. dedicated to helping community college students transition to their university.  Additionally, most colleges spell out very specifically what financial incentives they will give transfer students with high GPAs. 

6)  Watch those ACT/SAT scores.  If your child is truly interested in attending a 4 year university as a freshman, it is TRUE that they will be offered a LOT more financial aid as at incoming freshman, than they will be as a transfer student.  So, talk to reps early and often.  Ask specific questions about their scholarship levels.  Sometimes the monetary difference between an ACT score of 25 and 27 can amount to several thousand dollars in honors scholarship money at that particular university.  If your student needs an ACT increase of 1-2 points, then have them take the test again.  They can take the ACT up to 12 times, although statistically scores don’t increase significantly after the third try.

7)  Visit universities.  We are just beginning this part.  This is the fun part.  They like you.  They want you.  They serve you a free lunch.  Seriously, don’t go over the summer.  Go when class is in session.  This way you can visit with students and ask about their experience.  You can see if traffic is crazy or if the class sizes seem abnormally large.  If your student is seriously interested, plan to visit more than once.  Any college should be open to hosting your student overnight and letting them audit classes the next day, which are associated with their chosen field of study.   Finally, bear in mind that this more money than buying a house folks!  Don’t be afraid to ask all of your questions, and have them answered adequately, before you make a commitment.  Be sure you understand ALL the costs before you "sign on the dotted line."  People who have never had to live on a limited income forget to add those "$50" parking passes, and "$100 one-time enrollment fees".  But, if you count nickels and dimes (like we do) then you want to know ALL the costs.  

8)  Apply for scholarships EARLY!  There are a lot of scholarship opportunities available for younger students.  Most involve writing essays.  So, be certain your student gets a GOOD background in what constitutes "good writing."  Even if your student does not win, an honorable mention in a nationwide contest looks REALLY good on their transcript. is the best place we have found to scout out REAL scholarships.  Yep, there are a lot of places on-line which will charge you money for research that you can do yourself.  You need to sign up for an account.  But, really, we have not received a lot of nuisance e-mails or phone calls from signing up with Fastweb’s free service.  To guard against this possibility, we DID set up a separate e-mail account dedicated to all college research. So, all the colleges have that one, special e-mail address.  You don't clutter up your own in-box then.  

9)  We put our son in charge of our family finances for six months when he was 15.  This was a HUGE help in him understanding money - how to save, spend, and manage it. 

What about you?  Are you on this journey?  Any additional tips you can share?  I’d love to hear from you.

Update: July 2019.  

Our oldest took as many classes as he could at our local two-year college, paying just a couple of thousand dollars out of pocket after scholarships.  He was offered a full-tuition scholarship at a 4 year Christian college to finish his undergraduate degree.  He worked full-time for 1 semester to earn money for room and board before transferring. He will graduate debt-free in May of 2020 with an undergrad in psychology. We have given him just $4000 toward his college education. 

Our 2nd son graduated from high school three years ago and chose to pursue his love of technology. He now has his dream job, working in IT for a Christian healthcare sharing company.)  

Remember, do all to the glory of God,

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Do all to the glory of God, 


Sunday, August 31, 2014

When School Falls Apart

“The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Are Apt to Go Awry”

            Veteran homeschoolers  know, and new homeschoolers will soon learn, that sometimes “life” interferes with “school”.  It’s two weeks into the new school year.  You’ve been cruising along on schedule.  Suddenly, the baby gets a cold, you have scheduled your bi-yearly dental appointments and found five cavities, you agreed to serve on the church's Sunday School Planning Committee, your husband is working major overtime, and everyone (beginning with you) has developed a crazy, bad, stressed-out attitude. 

            This situation, or a very similar one, has presented itself to me many times in the past thirteen years of homeschooling.  So, let's develop a plan of action!

1)       Take a deep breath, grab a cup of tea, and sit down.  Really!!  As your fractured nerves settle you’ll realize that “life happens”.  Some upheaval is inevitable.  I remember vividly being a newly married young woman and telling my mother-in-law, “Mom, we JUST got a little money saved and then something happened and we had to spend it.  I feel like we go two steps forward and take one step back.”  She smiled and calmly replied, “Honey, that’s life.”  You may not LIKE your current situation, but freaking out, being short with the kids, or curling into a ball will NOT make it better or different.  So, BREATHE and prepare to sort out fact from fiction. 

2)    Solomon 2:15 says it is, “the little foxes that spoil the vineyards,”  When we are stressed, our PERCEPTION of the situation can become blown out proportion to the actual facts.  It is, generally, not one BIG thing bothering us, but several LITTLE things.  So, grab a piece of paper to go along with that cup of tea.  Make two columns.  List of your current commitments and what is bothering you on the left hand side. Maybe you’ve explained long division to your third grader three times and he/she is still having trouble grasping the concept or your toddler is happy for the first fifteen minutes of the school day and is very unhappy or demanding for the next two hours.   Perhaps you have overscheduled your free time for the next couple of weeks.  

3)    Look at your list.  Determine which things you have control over and which you cannot control. Use the right hand side of the paper to brainstorm possible solutions to each dilemna. If a sick child is causing part of the stress, you don’t have a lot of control over that.  But, you CAN change your homeschool routine to accommodate that child’s needs.  You can rock a child, who needs extra “Mom time” while reading a great book aloud to the rest of the kids.  You can ask older siblings to help the younger ones stay on task.  The fifth grader can tutor the first grader in math or English.   Dad can help in the evenings after supper.  Always recognize that family comes FIRST.  If the toddler is unhappy, maybe he/she needs some more interesting “school only” toys or educational activities to work on.  When my youngest sons watched the “big boys” do school, what they wanted most was to feel included.  They wanted to “do school” too.  Give them something to do and then give them lots of praise for a job well done. 

4)      Next, prioritize. You may see that the calendar is over-booked.  You can call the head of that church committee and says, “I’m so sorry.  But, my schedule this week will not allow me to attend that meeting.  But, I would love to have an e-mail containing notes from the meeting sent to me later this week.”   Don’t’ be afraid to prune that commitment list!  Do what you must, to have time as a family.  Note:  reading to them during school time rarely counts as quality reading time.  I have had more than one child say, “Mom can you read me a book?”  I reply, “I read to you during school time.”  “Mom, that’s NOT reading time.  That’s school time.”  You are still a mom, not just their primary educator. 

5)     I tell new Homeschooling moms to decide what is necessary, what is optimal, and what is extra.  “Necessary” things MUST be done.  We need to eat three times a day (seven or eight times a day if you are raising teenage boys).  We don’t need to eat a five course gourmet meal.  Decide what you can do to lighten your load with meal preparation.  Make frequent use of children to prep food, set the table, clear the table, and do dishes.  “Optimal” things are still important.  In a perfect day, we would get them done.  But, some days optimal things may go by the wayside.  And that’s okay!  “Extral” things are just that – the extras.  This is a prime area for pruning when you are overwrought with “life”. 

6)    Finally, “this, too, shall pass”.  Crazy times rarely last forever and they seem to pass more quickly when we change our attitude, reorganize our schedule, and prioritize our time.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Living Under the Median

Several years ago I saw a series entitled “Living Under the Median” on the Today Show.  It featured the stories of families living on under $50,000 per year in America.  Many folks not only live, but also thrive, while doing just that.  Our family is one example!

After being married just four months (in late 1988) we made a very important decision:  We would live within our income and save for future expenses.  Our goal was, and is, to remain totally debt free.  Since that time we have (after taking just one car loan in 1989 and paying it off in six months) paid cash for automobiles.  We bought our first home in 1992 and paid the mortgage off in five years.  Then, after living there an additional 13 years, bought our current home four years ago with no mortgage. It has been hard work, but it has been worth it! 

Here are some financial principles, which have served us well: 

  1. ALWAYS work from a written budget – and stick to it! Leave yourself “margin”.  Don’t spend every penny that you make.  
  2. Write down short, medium, and long-term goals and have a “game plan” for reaching them. Track those goals:  I have a monthly synopsis sheet which I show Larry at the end of each month so that we are both aware of “where are are” in terms of the budget and our goals. 
  3. Give generously – We tithe 10 percent of our income and do not count this money toward part of our spendable budget.  It encourages a grateful spirit in you, when you consider the needs of others.  Our faith plays a HUGE part in why we choose to live like we live!  We believe that our monthly income is a gift from God to meet our needs.  Therefore, we are responsible to spend it wisely and in a way, which brings Him honor and glory.   We have seen God meet our needs in amazing, and often unexpected, ways through the years. 
  4. If you are married, you are a TEAM!  Always remember that your spouse is not your opponent, he or she is your ally.  Together, you can accomplish so much more than if you are “at odds” about how, when, and where money should be spent.  If you’re not married, form a team around you who will support and encourage you in your goals. 
  5. Don’t let others define for you how you should spend your money.  (And don’t let them define you as a person, either, based on your income or how you choose to spend money.)  Don’t feel badly saying, “I’m sorry, we have spent our allotment of entertainment money for this month.  But, if you’ll ask us again in two weeks, then we’d be happy to go to dinner with you.”   Or:  “I’m sorry, dinner won’t work for us.  But, let’s meet for desert later in the evening.”  It’s okay to set parameters – It’s YOUR money.  You’d be surprised how many folks will admire your tenacity and actually tell you that they wish they had your self-discipline. 
  6. Practice delayed gratification. Practice delayed gratification.  Practice delayed gratification.  (Did I say that enough?)  Know who you are and where you’re headed.  It will help to keep the ultimate goals in mind when you are tempted with purchases which will side-line you.  When you are working within a limited budget, it really doesn’t take too many of those “little purchases” to add up to a big, fat “goal killer”! 
  7. Know when to “kill that fatted calf” and CELEBRATE!  If you’ve saved for your new living room furniture and found the perfect pieces (hopefully on sale or – even better – second hand) then joyfully spend that money!   Believe me, when we moved in to this house – owing no bank one dollar – we did a “happy dance”, whooped, and hollered.  Can’t imagine what the new neighbors thought.  J

Joyfully living under the median,