We have six kids: Here's how we put them all through college

In a four-part series, USA TODAY takes a look at financial challenges that can emerge at various stages in your life. Through the stories of real people, we provide a road map that readers can learn from if they experience something similar. In this installment, Jeffry and Catherine Vecore provide a crash course in financing (six!) college educations. 

Many American families have two to three children that they have to consider sending to college. Imagine having double or even triple that number of young people seeking higher education.

That was the task at hand for Jeffry  and Catherine Vecore: sending six kids to college — and taking on as little debt as possible in the process.

It was always important for the  Addison Township, Mich., couple that their children finish college. “Things don't always go as you plan in life,” Jeffry says. With a degree, “they'd be able to get jobs and support themselves and their families.”

Saving enough money to put a child through college can seem like an insurmountable goal. According to the College Board, in 2016-2017 tuition and fees at a public four-year college or university cost $9,650, on average. For out-of-state students that amount rises to nearly $25,000 and at private schools more than $33,000 — and that's not even including room and board.

But for the Vecores, preparation allowed them to do it not once, but over and over again. All that planning paid off. Today, all of the Vecore children are out on their own. Four work in the medical industry with careers in various areas of nursing and one is a surgical technician. The other two chose careers in education and public relations.

The road to educating their children wasn’t always easy. Here’s how the Vecores tackled it, step by step:

Set limits. The Vecores decided to pay for tuition, but if the children wanted to go away to school they'd have to pay for their own room and board. Each child ended up going to school locally, so they lived at home. The Vecores also agreed to pay for each child to get a bachelor’s degree, but the children would have to pay for any additional degrees themselves.

Break the goal into manageable chunks. If one child was going to be in school, the Vecores estimated they would need to have saved roughly $13,000 for that academic year. At one point, they had three children in college at the same time, so they made sure they had at least $39,000 saved for each of those years. Taking it one year at a time made the task less stressful and helped the couple focus on exactly how much they needed at any given time.

Take advantage of free money. Jeffry worked for General Motors, and the company offered a $1,500 tuition reimbursement benefit that cut down the amount the Vecores had to save for each child. Also, a couple of the children received scholarships and other sources of financial aid. For example, one daughter received a $5,000 grant each year.

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Increase your earning potential. They worked off-shifts, which came with premium pay and allowed Jeffry and Catherine to save money on child care since one parent was typically home. “I'd work afternoons, so I'd go in at 3:30 until 11:30,” says Catherine, who is a nurse.  Jeffry also worked overtime and a second job during the summers to make more money.

If you borrow, have a strict plan for that, too. The Vecores were determined to give each child the gift of free tuition. However, during the years when multiple children were in college, they fell short of their savings goal. To make good on their promise, they took out a $25,000 loan to make up the difference. However, they had no intention of staying mired in debt, and put a plan in place to pay the balance off in four years.

Keep costs down. The Vecores were able to save more by living frugally. They didn’t take lavish vacations, did without expenses such as cable and they drove their cars for about 10 years before replacing them. Two of the children went to community college for the first two years before transferring to a four-year college, which kept tuition costs down.

Once all six children had been educated, the Vecores looked to the next generation. They’ve opened up college savings accounts for each of their five grandchildren and make regular deposits instead of giving other types of gifts. “They have a lot of aunts and uncles who give them all the toys they'll ever need,” Jeffry Vecore says.

More advice for saving for college: 

The sooner you start saving, the better, but it’s never too late to make a difference, says Dana Branham, a Lexington, Kentucky-based financial adviser with Lasting Legacy Wealth Management. Here’s how to make the greatest impact.

Set up a 529 plan. People who open these tax-advantaged college savings plans typically save more. The average amount saved in a 529 plan was $7,534, compared to $6,043 in a general savings account, according to Sallie Mae’s study How America Saves for College 2016.

Be OK with not saving it all. The average cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year private college was $45,370 per year in 2016-2017, according to the College Board. You may not be able to save the entire amount, Branham says. Look for scholarships and other sources of aid to fill in the gaps. Having children attend a public four-year college in your state will also cut down on costs.

Encourage others to contribute. Family members and friends will want to buy your child gifts and toys. “Tell people to instead contribute to the college fund," Branham advises.

Don’t sacrifice your retirement. Never cut back on retirement savings to pay for a child’s education. “There are no loans for retirement,” Branham says.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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