March 2010


This is Casey, who made his
debut on January 8 at DeKalb Medical, while outside the window of his
delivery room cars were skidding down North Decatur Road during what
passes in Atlanta for a Great Ice Storm. Casey is the first child for my
wife and me, and during the occasional peaceful evening at home when
he’s asleep and swaddled and I’m reading a book and the dogs are quietly
shedding over the carpet (there have been precisely two of those
moments so far, and their duration averages seven minutes), I have been
seized in mid-reverie by something I can only describe as terror. It’s a
quiet terror, sort of the panic attack kind, in which you become
especially cognizant of your heart beating and you wonder if you stop
concentrating on it, will it stop? What prompts this at any particular
moment is a mystery. Where it leads me to is my laptop, where I Google
“college 529 calculator” and punch in precisely one number—a zero for
Casey’s age. Instantly I am reminded, in stark math, how much my wife
and I need to be socking away for our boy’s college fund.

The answer is $602 a month, which, put into a fund that grows tax-free
at what the calculator assumes will be 7 percent annual interest (7
percent! That’s funny!), will compound until 2028, at which point we
will have $312,166, which I’m told is how much four years will cost then
at a college that today charges $25,000 a year.

Around this time I think of my own parents, who had not one kid, but
six. They both worked—she was a social worker, he in construction—and
their deal to us was simple: After high school, you’ll go to the
community college around the corner (it literally was three blocks away
from our house in central New York), get good grades, and we’ll figure
out a way to pay when it comes time to transfer to a four-year school.

And they did. The solution made perfect sense. Still, it didn’t stop a
few of us (okay, me) from grumbling as we watched our friends head off
to freshman year at Notre Dame, or Cornell, or Boston College. But when I
graduated from American University four years later after transferring
in as a junior, I had not a penny of debt. I took it for granted then,
but in the years since, seeing how college loans hobbled some of my
friends and forced them to curtail their ambitions, I am reminded of how
lucky I was.

Not surprisingly, our College issue couldn’t have come at a more
opportune time for this particular reader. I especially recommend Clark
Howard’s tips on footing the bill (page 67). Clark wisely reminds us
that raiding your 401(k) to fund your child’s tuition is just about the
worst idea imaginable. That said, I’m going to have to raid something to
fund Casey’s.

In the meantime, I can’t stop looking at him. Let’s hope he’s as smart
as he is cute.

Contact Steve Fennessy at