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Your Finance: Stop stalling on a college savings plan

Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington.

Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington. (July 10, 2013) Credit: AP

College savings expert Joe Hurley thinks $250 a month is the optimal amount to contribute to a child's 529 plan.

Mark Kantrowitz, a college guru at the website, leans toward a one-third approach -- as in, one-third of your child's tuition should come out of your savings, one-third from current income and one-third from loans.

What is the right amount for you? It's just about anyone's guess.

Since 529 plans started nationally in 1996, U.S. families have been paying more attention to saving for college. Assets in tax-advantaged 529 accounts are growing -- now at more than $180 billion in assets, according to Financial Research Corp. But that is a drop in the bucket compared with the $1 trillion student loan market.

At T. Rowe Price, a large purveyor of 529 plans, the company's senior financial planner, Stuart Ritter, is searching for ways to motivate people to save for college regularly. "We, as human beings, are hard-wired to look for anchors, and we are looking for ways to give people a reasonable anchor -- not the right number, but a reasonable number," he says.

We asked three behavioral finance experts how to kick-start families into saving more for college. Here is what they said:

Make a grid: A big hurdle to college savings is that it requires families to actively open an account, according to David Laibson, a professor of economics at Harvard University. If money earmarked for college is not in a separate account, it gets spent well before college tuition bills loom.

Gold, silver, bronze: Take a page from health insurance reform rather than retirement. Brigitte Madrian, a public policy and corporate management professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, suggests setting up a menu for college savings accounts similar to the designations for health insurance plans.

The bronze plan might be for parents who think their children will go to state university or community college -- not exorbitant. Silver could be for a private university, gold for top-tier universities at full cost.

Reminding people to save each month by sending a paper bill or text reminder is also an effective reminder, she says. Another is to exploit tax season. "The average tax refund is $2,000, if you put it in 529 every year while kids were growing up, you'd have a significant accumulation by college."

Just do it: John Beshears, an assistant professor of finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says, "The sums we're talking about are enormous, so take a small step." His theory is that the amount you save at first does not matter -- opening the account at any amount is good enough. "There's no need to do all those fancy calculations. You can work up to where you need to go."

His research shows that giving yourself a short-term deadline, like two Saturdays from now, can motivate you to accomplish tasks like opening an account or starting up an autotransfer. Then pick moments in time to re-evaluate, like the first day of school every year or a child's birthday.

"The overarching theme," he says, "is to get started no matter how little it is at first, and build momentum."

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