From Base to Campus: Financial tips for college-bound military families

Talking to your kids about college starts earlier than you might think. By the end of eighth grade, it’s time to begin the conversation. That means opening up about your expectations, about the world of possibilities higher ed offers, about how you’ll pay for it, and about all the benefits that come with a diploma.

If you belong to a military family, those conversations might be a little different—in a good way. Your family’s service and sacrifices have earned you some serious benefits when it comes to paying for your kid’s degree. I feel it’s critical that armed forces families understand and take full advantage of all those well-deserved perks.

Military Families Saving for College

Before I get into the details, though, I’d like to answer a question lots of parents—whether in or out of the military—are asking: Is college really worth the cost? Answer: Absolutely. Graduates earn an average of a million dollars more over a lifetime than those who stop at a high school diploma. That message—that going to college has real value, for you and for them—should be part of the conversation. One of the most effective ways to let your kid know how much importance you place on college is to put some money where your mouth is. Research shows that when parents have savings earmarked for college, and talk to their kids about it, those kids are three times more likely to go to school. And here’s the amazing thing: It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve put in the account.

Once your kid is on board, it’s time to check out some smart college money tips as well as some of the many sweet benefits coming your way for serving your country:

Fill out the FAFSA4caster

When you start the college money conversation with your kid, make this government tool part of the discussion. After answering a few questions online, the FAFSA4caster will give you a ballpark estimate of the financial aid you can expect down the road, including your eligibility for low-interest federal loans or free college money like Federal Pell Grants.

Make a GI Bill plan

Be strategic with how to allocate your GI Bill benefits. Many service members transfer their benefits to a spouse or their kids. Think about whether this makes sense for you. If you’ve earned the full benefit through your service, the GI Bill will cover four years of costs at the most expensive in-state college or university in your area. Find out more at military.com/education/gi-bill.

Explore the Yellow Ribbon Program

This program can sometimes make up the difference between your GI Bill benefits and the full cost of an expensive college. Participating schools offer funds to fill some of this gap, and the VA matches those funds to cover even more. At benefits.va.gov, you can find out if the school you’re interested in is one the hundreds of colleges across the country that participate in the program. Even better: Lots of schools, including Washington & Lee and University of Chicago, offer unlimited Yellow Ribbon funding.

Save in your Thrift Savings Plan

Starting in January 2018, these retirement savings plans will match any contributions up to 5%. You may be tempted to put any available cash into your kid’s college, but you should max out your TSP matching. Here’s why: While your kid could borrow for college if needed, you can’t borrow for retirement. And matching funds equals free money.

Seek military-related scholarships           

BigFuture.org lists hundreds of scholarships (really) just for military families. That’s free money. (Can you tell I’m all about the free money?) Make sure you’ve checked out every one, and have applied for any scholarships that make sense for your kid.

Take advantage of installation resources

Many military bases, such as North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, have education offices to help service members wade through the various college-financing programs available to you. Make sure that the director of your office knows you on a first-name basis when your kid is approaching college age.

Check out your state’s 529 plan

Not just for military families, but these state-sponsored savings plans are just plain great ways to save for your kid’s college. They allow you to stash away money without having to pay federal tax on the earnings—as long as you use the funds for educational purposes. Visit savingforcollege.com to find an option that offers investments at a low fee. Generally, you can sign up for any state’s 529 plan, but there might be state and local tax benefits for choosing your own state’s plan.

Steer clear of for-profit schools

And here’s one that’s just good advice for anyone considering college. For-profit private colleges are known to court veterans and their families because they have GI Bill money to spend—but these schools are also notorious for low graduation rates. Check BigFuture.org to see if a school on your list is for-profit. If so, consider looking elsewhere.