For the first time in a long time, I contributed money to my daughters' college funds this week.
In case my action inspires anyone, I thought I'd tell my little tale. Besides, it's a fitting time to discuss saving money: As you'll hopefully hear quite a few times over the next several days, if you hang around WalletPop, this is America Saves Week.
I have two daughters, ages 6 and 8, and for several years, I used to dutifully put $50 in each of their 529 college education accounts each month. It wasn't much, but buried in credit card debt, I was pretty pleased with myself that I could put in anything. Plus, my parents were contributing to the fund, so I felt pretty good about how they were building up. Every little bit helps, I thought.
But then my credit card debt grew out of control to the point where I could barely make my mortgage let alone contribute toward college. So one day, I quietly stopped the automatic payments.
Apparently, I'm not alone. A survey commissioned by America Saves and the American Savings Education Council observes that Americans' savings habits in general are out of whack. From 2008 to 2010, the number of Americans with a specific savings plan with specific goals fell from 62% to 55%, while the number of those with a spending plan that allowed savings dropped from 49% to 46%, and the amount of people who save for retirement at work fell from 55% to 49%.
I'm not sure what exactly happened Sunday to get me thinking about my daughters' college fund -- while I'm not financially flush, I'm no longer buried in debt. But I suddenly found myself looking at what we've saved so far. It's not much, but it's something -- maybe, at this point, I could pay for a semester for each of them, if they go to an in-state college.
And so rather impulsively, I contributed $50 to each of their accounts again, and if all goes according to plan, I'm going to start contributing every month again.
Of course, sooner or later, I'm going to need to start adding a lot more than $50 per month. After sending off my modest $100 to the 529s and basking in that good feeling of doing the right thing, I did the math and was startled to realize that in 10 years, if I socked away $50 a month for each of them, excluding the interest, I'll only have $6,000 more socked away for each of them to go to college. According to CollegeBoard.com, right now, a year at a typical four-year college costs around $7,000 (a private school, $26,000).
In any case, what struck me as a very positive development was that my contribution this week to my girls' college funds was pretty impulsive. When I went online to look at their accounts, I thought I was just going to look. I hadn't really truly budgeted for it. But I found myself linking from the account's web site to my bank's web site and thought about how easy it would be to throw some money in there, and the next thing I knew, that's what I had done.
Impulse buying isn't the most sensible thing you can do, but when I think of how quickly I used to make spending decisions -- and how so many of those decisions involved buying things I didn't need -- I have to think that impulsively saving money is a practice we should all try to embrace.
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop and the co-author of the new book "Living Well with Bad Credit."
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