How much does she need to save for college?

Ask The Expert: How Much Should I Save For College?

Question: I am a 28-year-old hair stylist who went to beauty school but never college. I have only a few hundred dollars on my credit cards, my old Subaru is paid off, and I have $11,500 saved for college. I plan to work weekends and go to school full time, but I don’t know when to pull the trigger.

I can add up estimates on tuition and books, but it all seems so mushy. When I search online, all the advice about saving for college is for parents of young children. What about adults like me? 

— Beth in Memphis

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fastI understand your frustration, Beth. When you make other major purchases, you can easily anticipate the expenses.

A new house? The mortgage details your monthly payment for the next 15 or 30 years, as well as tell you how much is interest and how much is principal. Sure, home repairs are always unexpected, but except for some rare horror stories, you can easily handle most items that break.

College is perhaps the most unpredictable major expense you’ll experience. Prices vary wildly. The College Board says the average yearly cost of tuition and books ranges from $3,131 at a community college for in-state students to $21,706 at a public four-year school for out-of-state students. Private colleges? The average approaches $30,000 a year. That said, there are several rules for adults who either return to college or are heading there for the first time…

1. Cheapest is best for the first two years

As the numbers above prove, community colleges cost much less than four-year schools. That’s no big secret, and neither is this: Few employers care where you earn your associate’s degree as long as you earn bachelor’s degree later.

Here’s what is lesser known: Community colleges are popular with older students. “The average age of a community college student is 29,” says the American Association of Community Colleges. That will help you for a non-financial reason: You’ll feel more comfortable around those closer to your own age, instead of being surrounded by teenagers. Also, professors are much more attuned to instructing adults.

2. College savings plans aren’t just for parents

Perhaps you’ve heard of 529 plans, so called for their IRS designation. They’re popular among parents, who start contributing to these tax-advantaged funds when their children are very young. By the time they’re ready for college, that 529 plan has accrued a lot of tax-free dollars.

If you plan to go to school for four years, a 529 might make sense if you start right now. Perhaps the easiest explanation of that is from a U.S. News story called 4 Common Myths About Adults Saving for College. Check it out.

3. Don’t neglect your retirement

When you’re struggling to save for college, you’re not thinking much beyond that. Certainly, you’re worried about finding a job after graduating and launching into a new career. However, you’re 28 years old, Beth. While that’s still very young, you need to at least start saving a few dollars toward retirement — because those funds will grow just as quickly over time as a 529 plan for a newborn.

Even if you set aside as little as $5 a week, you can contribute to a retirement fund. I suggest you read our article, MyRA: Your newest (and easiest and best?) retirement saving option.

Bottom line, Beth: Whenever you start school, you’ve already made all the right moves. You have little debt holding you back, you’ve saved a significant sum, and you’re still working hard with an eye toward your future. My prediction: You’re going to achieve all the success you want.

Have a debt question?

Email your question to and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

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