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The one step to save for college, tackle toy clutter, and feel less overwhelmed

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Being a parent can feel overwhelming from the moment it starts. For many of us, that feeling never goes away. How could it? Every day we face new challenges and demands on our time. Our kids’ ups and downs, combined with the stress we face at work and in our own lives (if we still have any!) are a constant.

Even before I became a mom, I saw how this feeling affects families’ financial lives. Experts in the media kept saying how important it is to save for college. But in our hectic, expensive lives, most families haven’t created a plan to do so, according to Sallie Mae. The biggest reason many families haven’t started saving: they feel overwhelmed.

Of course they do. Most families can’t afford to put away an amount that even remotely resembles the astronomical costs we often hear about. And we often equate saving with that big tuition price tag, so instead of getting started we bury our heads in the sand and time passes.

Meanwhile, that same overwhelmed feeling is helping drive another, very different challenge many families are facing: the too many toys phenomenon. (Yes, #FirstWorldProblems, I know, but bear with me to see how you can hack one to solve the other.)

The United States has only 3% of the world’s children, but consumes 40% of the world’s toys. That figure is growing, despite research suggesting kids benefit from having fewer. And among older kids, more apt to play with video games than teddy bears, the wildly popular Fortnite alone recently raked in nearly $300 million in a single month -- even though the game is free. (Players shell out for extras.)

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons for this. Often, these toys are coming from grandma and grandpa, which explains why Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher have stopped buying their kids gifts for Christmas.

But it’s also in part a result of parents feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes, since finances are tight, parents need to put in extra hours at work, feel guilty about it, and buy toys to make up for time away. (This guilt is misplaced -- today’s parents spend more time with our kids than previous generations did.)

Also, some parents think: “If I can’t afford that big thing, like college tuition, at least I can give my kid that toy.” It makes sense. We do the same thing for ourselves: “I can’t afford a vacation, but at least I can buy that latte.”

This is why some new, important research can cause a big change and help families tackle these problems. The New York Times recently reported that “top colleges are cheaper than you think (unless you’re rich).” It showed that lower income students are likely to face an annual bill of about $6,000. For middle-income students, it’s often around $16,000.

That’s still hefty, but less overwhelming.

Here’s where small savings become hugely important. A study from Washington University in St. Louis found that a lower- or moderate-income child with even just a small amount of school savings -- less than $500 -- is more than three times more likely to go to college and more than four times more likely to graduate. Even having small assets gives people hope and a sense of security. And the process of saving teaches kids important lessons about long-term thinking, planning, and more.

So how do we change our daily lives so that those dollars we put into toys could instead go into an account? By using technology to make it fun and interactive.


I’m a big fan of signing up for an online “nudge,” from your bank or a savings app, that gets you to put a few dollars in each day or week. Or have an automated monthly deposit go in.

If you take only one step, I recommend you make it this: Open an account with a small recurring deposit (just make sure it has no fees!). Like that toy or latte, it’s the little things over a long period of time that add up. (It’s why I created an app, which is now working with the leading non-profit in financial education to help teach kids to save and engage families in growing kids’ funds.)

Here are three more tips:

  1. Talk to your kids about money -- where it comes from, what you need it for, and how it all works. Don't be afraid or ashamed. This empowers kids to have a healthier relationship to finances.
  2. If you start an account, show your kids their money. Count it. Track it. Make goals to grow it. Decide together how they want to save, spend and give.
  3. Tell grandparents and everyone else that this is a gift option. Your kids don’t need more stuff, but do need a strong future. As long as they know it’ll make the kids happy, they’ll be likely to make that a present.

What steps have you found work to shed the toy clutter and start saving for college?

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