Well, I'm new here, but I just would like to take the opportunity to heartfully thank Joe and team for this amazing Web site providing all details on 529 plans. This is obviously a TON of work, and this is well done, and extremely helpful.
To share a bit of a different story... I am relatively well paid (working in high-tech, got lucky with some stock-options), so we didn't have to struggle as hard as many parents to fund the kids college (full respect to those less wealthy folks pulling it off, by the way). Our issue is a tad different, we are wealthy enough to not have access to any financial aid, not federal work opportunity, and limited scholarships. And we live in the east coast, the kids are fairly good students, they made it at good private colleges. So we basically got hammered by full-force sky-high college fees (the two elder boys are sophomore and freshman in 2012). And I am struggling to find a proper balance between retirement and funding for our 3rd younger boy.
What we did right:
1) planning for 529s for the two elders ten years in advance (I wished we'd have started earlier, but we moved to the US 13 years ago, and that was a steep learning curve in many respects!) and putting a good chunk of money on it
2) fostering a rich intellectual life at home, books, books, books... And fostering extra school activities (I wish we had done more though).
3) shelling some additional dough for a couple of well-chosen summer camps and summer trips. We didn't truly do it on purpose, but it's amazing to see that the choice of major for one kid were directly driven by one trip in Europe, and rich contacts plus the realization that he is smart and can do well in life for the other kid came straight from an Explo summer camp. And his choice of major (exercise science) came straight from an extra-curricular activity.
4) yes, we're reasonably wealthy, but I still want my kids to learn how to deal with tight situations. So they know about our money challenges, they have zero allowance, they had to pay for their laptops, and just manage for extras. Didn't go that well the first year (lack of any job inside the college is a pain), but funny, my sophomore is now working hard to make money this summer, and the freshman got the point too.
That's it for the good stuff.
1) to put it simply, we just didn't do much homework... I learned much more in the past year than in the past 10 years... A bit late...
2) We blindly followed the advice of a financial advisor, we didn't shop around for the 529, and we stayed for a LOOONG time stuck on a plan with high fees, and mutual funds (instead of no-nonsense index funds). In other words, way too much money went to bankers. Arumph.
3) We didn't open a 3rd plan for our younger kid, expecting that we'd have some money left from the 2 elders. Well, first, this gives us way too many knots to the brain (keep it simple, dissociate!)... Plus the extra money in an age-based plan is a poor investment when you have actually two very different age targets.
4) I don't think we played the scholarship game very well. We tried, but with very little outcome. Not quite sure how to improve. One thing is that we didn't think to re-apply for the sophomore kid to the scholarships from our local town (didn't think this would apply beyond freshman year! dumb!).
Something we tried was to go in vacations in Montreal, visiting the city and the local university. We're expatriates, we would have had a much lower college tuition out there, but the kids just didn't buy it, they are truly American now...
That's is. Overall, we're lucky enough to make it without too much of a struggle, but geez, this is just a giant pile of money, and why oh why aren't colleges managed in a bit more of a cost-conscious way...