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4 Strategies to Help You Save for College in 5 Years (Or Less)

Need to know how to save for college in 5 years (or less)? Check out these 4 killer strategies to help you meet your goal.

If you're searching the internet for the best way to save for college in 5 years…then you know that there's not much time left before your child goes off to college.

high school student at desk with laptop applying to scholarships, text overlay "saving late for college? Genius strategies"

To be honest, only having 5 years, 4 years, or less to save up for a college education – while many parents are in the same boat – is not ideal.

I'm here to give you a little bit of tough love so that I can motivate you to get the ball rolling (and rolling FAST).

Because if you're following Fidelity's rule on having $2,000 saved for each year of your child's life…and you're looking at starting to save for college at 14, well then you are about $28,000 behind (and, actually, further than that because they assume that money is sitting in a 529 investment plan, earning returns).

<take a deep breath>.

Let's look at what you can do to get through this.

In fact, we'll start with the benefits there are to getting a late start saving for college.

The Benefit of a Late Start to Saving for College

Probably one of the scariest ideas swirling around in our minds as parents is how the heck we're going to pay for our kids' education.

I mean, my little guy is just 15 months old, and the idea probably invaded my mental space as early as month #2 of pregnancy.


And if there's only 4 years left until they go? Well…you REALLY have to get the ball rolling. In fact, it's highly unlikely you'll be able to cover your child's college education costs at this point (all of them, I mean).

That's why you've got to look at how to pay for your child's college in totality, and not just through savings. You know, using tools like:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Gift Money
  • Education investment accounts
  • Loans
  • etc.

But before we get into all that, did you know that there is actually a potential benefit for people who got a late start saving for their kid's college education?

You Could Get More Financial Aid

Let's be honest: you're not likely to save up tons of money (like $100,000) in four years. So, one benefit of saving late for college in a 529 plan is that you'll be able to save/invest less, and the first $20,000 in these plans is not taken into consideration when filling out the FAFSA form.

It's called the Asset Protection Allowance, and the age of the oldest parent is what determines how much is protected when calculating financial aid and determining the EFC (Expected Family Contribution).

Now, let's move on to the strategies for how you're going to pay for your child's college education in 4 years.

Strategy #1: Starting a 529 plan late? Fund it with Scholarships

When I was getting geared up towards college − shout out to Washington College − I had not thought for a moment about going after scholarships under the age of, say, 17.

I mean it just made sense to me that you would start looking + applying for scholarships in the year leading up to when you left for college (which, it still makes sense to do − we'll talk about this below).

But then I ran across Linsey Knerl's Facebook post gushing about her 11-year-old son's $1,000 scholarship win to help fund his 529 college savings account.

Psst: even though her kids are young, this is still a great way to fund an education investment account if you're starting a 529 plan late.

Just 11 years old. Think about this: that's not only a free $1,000 in college money, but the money has 7 or so years to grow until he's ready to use it.

What a cool college savings plan strategy!

And you know what else? I also learned that students can continue applying for scholarships throughout their college careers (WOW do I wish I had known to do that!).

Psst: here's my article on how to find scholarships for college students to apply to (hacks #2 and #3). 

I wanted to learn more about Linsey's strategy (because couldn't we all use super actionable tips for how to fund our own kids' college educations)?

Linsey's Got a Threefold 529 Funding Strategy

Linsey Knerl is no stranger to entering contests for money. This homeschooling Mama Bear to 6 kids − Kylin (age 18), Micah (age 13), Matthias (age 11), Moses (age 9), Marcus (age 6), Manasseh/”Manny” (age 3) − has been entering and winning contests on and off for over 20 years.

Like, back when they had dot matrix printers.

Linsey says,

“I've won thousands of dollars in prizes, including a bicycle, trip to San Francisco, a year of massages, dinners, iPads, a TV, home security system, gaming consoles, a private movie screening for 100 guests, lots and lots of free product coupons, socks, and key chains. There have been times I have gotten bored with it and have stopped, but as soon as I start again, I usually have good luck.”

So naturally, when thinking about how to get cash for her kids' college educations, she turned to this same strategy.

Well…this plus a consistent savings plan.

She says,

“We had opened up regular investment accounts through Capital One for the kids back when they gave out $25 – $50 bonuses for each account (with no minimum). We have just started to work on moving over funds from low-performing funds to a 529, after we had our son win a $1,000 529 account from our state!”

Before the scholarship was won, the regular investment accounts had money in them. That's because of Linsey's priority to save for her six kids' college educations.

“I start putting $25 each month for each kid into a custodial investing account for them when they are preschool age. When the kids get a bit older, and earn their own money, they are asked to put at least 15% of their own money in, as well. It's not a lot, but it is automated and it adds up. If nothing else, it can pay for first year tuition, books, or other expenses.”

This ensures that if no scholarships are won, there is still money waiting for each of her children to pursue higher education.

Just to recap, her threefold 529 college savings plan strategy includes: 

  • $25/month of her own money into each account
  • 15% of each child's earned income once they start to work
  • Any scholarship money wins

Let's Dig Into Her 529 College Savings Plan Scholarship Strategy

Linsey and her husband want their kids “to have every opportunity to thrive within the gifts and talents given. We usually see what our kids are gifted in around age 11 or 12. We try to nurture those gifts and interests early and often so that they can see what they might like to do when they get older. Kids change their minds, but homeschooling gives us the freedom to not waste time sending kids to college to do things they would hate to do in the real world. Who wants to spend money on that?”

Not only is she having her children enter 4-6 skill scholarship contests per year (like these youth entrepreneurship competitions), but since these are skill-based contests, they're also complementary to her homeschooling education (not to mention giving her kids a healthy appetite for entering contests + competing).

Contests they've entered so far have been coloring contests, essays, or simply a reading program goal reward with prizes varying between $25 and $20,000.

In order for her son, Matthias, to score that $1,000, he had to draw a picture of his dream job. His winning photo of a colored pencil drawing of farming equipment was included in a calendar for the bank customers and winning families.

Plus the kids have won small prizes of $20-$50 in the past.

Where does she find all of these opportunities for her kids to enter? Linsey says,

“I look everywhere! I Google for them, sign up for lending institution newsletters, and use sites like Petersons and Cappex. I also stay on the mailing lists for all the organizations we are part of. From the HSLDA (Homeschool Legal Defense Association) to our local Farm Bureau, there are always opportunities to enter and win money for college. You have to actively seek it out. Read the papers. Watch social media. Get involved!”

Resource Recap to Start Your Scholarship Search:

The bottom line comes from Linsey:

“You can't win if you don't enter!”

So, how exactly do you start entering contests?

I've curated a list of 17 scholarship opportunities totaling $262,000 for 14 years of age and younger below. Why that age range? Well, the earlier you start, the less daunting it will be for both you AND your kiddo to get into the habit of applying for scholarship money.

In fact, even though I scored an awesome $46,000+ for my own college education in scholarships + grants, I now wonder how much more I could have won if I had started earlier (instead of paying off $36,000 in student loans – free and clear as of September 2010).

Deadlines come and go, so my advice to you is to put a calendar reminder for any of the scholarships below that you're interested in, or save it to your favorites and add the deadline date to whatever you name it. You're less likely to forget that way.

$262,000 in Scholarship Opportunities

Age Requirement: 25 and Under

  1. Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship, $2,000
  2.'s Wall of Easy Scholarships
  3. I Have a Dream, $1,500
  4. Patriot's Pen $35,000
  5. $25,015 “Be Bold” No-Essay Scholarship
  6. Power Poetry's Scholarship Opportunities
  7. C-SPAN's StudentCam, $250-$5,000
  8. Duck Tape®'s Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest, $50,000 in cash prizes
  9. Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, $1,000-$5,000
  10. Create-A-Greeting-Card Scholarship, $10,000 + $1,000 for your school
  11. Davidson Fellows, $10,000-$50,000
  12.'s Scholarships
  13. Hispanic Scholarship Fund
  14. UNCF Scholarships to Minority Group Members

Age Requirement: Grade 6-12

  1. Patriot's Pen, $5,000
  2. Doodle 4 Google, $5,000-$15,000
  3. Angela Award, $1,000
  4. Team America Rocketry Challenge, $100,000
  5. Action For Nature Eco-Hero Award, up to $500

Psst: you might want to get on The Scholarship Collective's email list − she routinely sends out new scholarship opportunities, plus reminds everyone of approaching deadlines.

Strategy #2: Apply for Scholarships During College (all 4 Years)

I had no idea, while in college, that you could KEEP applying for scholarships all four years.

WOW, I wish I had known to do that!

Psst: here's my article on how to find scholarships for college students to apply to (hacks #2 and #3). 

Here are some other scholarships that college students can apply to:

Age Requirement: 25 and Under

  1. POET's Scholarships for undergrads
  2. $2,000 Sallie Mae Scholarship
  3. $500 “Scholar Dollars” Essay Scholarship for Black Students
  4. I Have a Dream, $1,500
  5. Niche $25,000 “No Essay” Scholarship
  6. $50,000 ScholarshipOwl No Easy Scholarship

Psst: are you an undergrad? Definitely bookmark Scholarship360's undergrad scholarship opportunities page and check back once a quarter for new scholarships to apply to.

Strategy #3: Shift Assets to Lower Your EFC

As mentioned earlier, the EFC is the Expected Family Contribution that's calculated on the FAFSA form. The lower you can get this number, the more financial aid you can bank on, because college financial aid staff use this EFC number to determine how much need-based financial aid your child can get.

There are ways to shift your assets (and financial moves to avoid taking leading into what's called your “base year” so that you don't falsely inflate your income).

Here are two excellent articles with more information on this:

Strategy #4: Use this Painless Strategy to Save for College

How on earth can I write that blog post title? Where I'm not only telling you that saving for your kid's college education is doable, but also that there's a way I know of to make it painless?

I'm a Mama Bear. I get it.

I know how daunting the $100K+ price tag appears (even if I still do have 16 years left to figure it out + am hanging my dreams on our little guy getting some good scholarships as part of a 529 college savings plan).

It's a mighty big task.

But I'm here to help solve how to save money for college by giving you the best way to save for college in 5 years. 4 years, 3 years, or less.

First, a little background to how I discovered this trick.

Our Discovery of Painless End-of-Year Savings

The end of every year is a pretty expensive time for us, just like it is for many families. There are holidays with food + gifts to purchase. There's airfare if we want to visit my family (as we often do), who all live 1,550 miles away. There are end-of-the-year Roth IRA contribution catch-ups to make to ensure we've maxed those out. There's our $450 Homeowner's Association fee. There's our flood insurance renewal fee.

It just doesn't seem to stop.

I had signed up for this free savings app (now $2.99/month) called (now Oportun) sometime in the summer of last year, and forgotten about it.

Well not entirely. But mostly.

One day when faced with all of the bills that came at the end of the year, I suddenly realized I had some hope. This app had been setting aside $5 here, and $12.27 there from our checking into a savings account for several months.

How much money was in there?

When I looked in November, I found it had squeezed a whopping $509.97 into savings for us!

And that $509.97 this free tool had set aside for us? It all came in just two months' time − between August 25th and October 24th to be exact − with an average of $18.21 taken out on each withdrawal.

Now…let's turn back to the task at hand: how to save for kids college in the most painless way possible.

The College Savings Trick to Make Savings Painless

In two months, that free app was able to find an extra $509.97 sitting in our checking account. So what do you think it could do over a span of, say, 10 years?

I'd imagine it could create miracle savings for you + your college-aged kiddo, at least partially solving the question of how to save for your kid's college.

It's not likely you'll miss $11.16, or $8.87 every few days (that's why I consider it painless, just like setting aside extra money for our end-of-year expenses last year). But what would you really miss? Knowing that you had set aside thousands of dollars over the years for your child to attend college.

The Workaround to Their Low-Interest Earnings

One downside to using when figuring out how to save for kid's college is that they don't give you interest for saving your money in an account with them.

That’s their business model − they save it for you automatically, and they earn the interest.

However, they do give you “Savings Bonuses”. Every three months you earn a little bit ($0.05/$100 saved, based on the average Digit balance over the last three months) for keeping your money with them.

So what you will want to do is whenever you get a significant amount of money built up, move it back to checking and over to your designated college savings account.

I think this really could be a lifesaver for you. Think about it: every time you see a  transaction from Oportun appear in your checking account, you can smile knowing that just a few more bucks have made it into your child's college savings fund.

That makes saving for your child's college a little bit easier (and definitely more painless).

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Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, a 2017 Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Money Prodigy. Her money work has been featured on Experian, GoBankingRates, PT Money,, Rockstar Finance, the Houston Chronicle, and Colonial Life. Amanda is the founder and CEO of Frugal Confessions, LLC. Read more here or on LinkedIn.


Friday 27th of January 2017

I'm bookmarking this. We were just talking about our 529 plan for our two-year old this morning.

Amanda L. Grossman

Friday 9th of June 2017

So glad to hear, Lee!

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