From ‘Harry Potter’ to ‘Back to the Future,’ Teen Movies Reveal Keys to College Savings

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tips for college kids
College student sitting in the window studying. (Stock Photo)

Our youngest daughter just graduated from college, so it’s the first year that we’re fully empty nesters (woo-hoo!). We’re going to miss having our kids around, which may be why back-to-school season really has gotten me this year.

It’s exciting but also a bit scary. We’ll need to make the emotional adjustment that comes with an empty nest and figure out what to do with a bit of extra income due to a shrinking set of bills and the elimination of college as a savings goal. We’re on the home stretch to retirement, so we’ll be able to put that extra money to work.

Thankfully, my oldest daughter and her husband have blessed us with a couple of grandkids. As a family, they’ll soon launch their own decade-plus-long string of back-to-school celebrations. To commemorate the season, we’re planning to revisit some of the high school-themed movies we watched with our kids. Here are four of my favorites, along with my commentary on the insights they can offer if you’re working on the financial end of your own college preparations.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” -- Surfer Jeff Spicoli was more interested in partying than excelling in the classroom. But in the end, with a little help from his teacher, he got serious enough to pass. The lesson? Don’t wait until the end of senior year to save and plan for college. Last-minute cramming may have worked for Spicoli, but in real life, you’ll want to put a little away each paycheck. If it’s in your plans, complete the proper forms to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits early. Don’t wait until it’s too late. And you can’t start too early; we set up college savings accounts for our grandkids, and our oldest just started kindergarten this year.

The “Harry Potter” series -- I read all the books and saw all the movies just so I could stay in tune with my kids (wink). And when my daughter graduated this summer, we set off for Orlando to experience the theme-park Potter experience. Truthfully, I enjoyed being transported to a world where you avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic by jumping into a fireplace to shift to a new location. While there are no magic fireplaces in the college savings game, there are cool tools that are nearly magical in terms of tax advantages. Check out the Coverdell Education Savings Account or a 529 college savings plan. They’re not quite flying broomsticks and magic wands, but they’re still pretty nifty.

“10 Things I Hate About You” — I really like this movie; I’ve watched it at least 20 times. Throughout the film, the character Kat champions the idea that you shouldn’t do something just because everyone else does it. That certainly holds true for college savings. Don’t spend extravagantly to keep up with the Joneses. Likewise, don’t put off saving just because you can’t be bothered. Build a savings plan and pick a college based on your own financial reality. Like Kat, you may get a happy ending.

“Back to the Future” — Marty McFly goes back in time to 1955, when life was simpler and cheaper. Remember that five-cent cup of coffee he orders? Unfortunately, the cost of a college education only is going to keep rising. According to the College Board’s Trends in Higher Education series, the cost of tuition, room and board, and other fees for the 2020-2021 school year at a four-year, in-state, public university is about $22,000. Those are big numbers, but every financial goal starts with a price tag and a timeline. Do your research, and don’t be afraid to be creative in your approach. Kids can live at home or start out at a community college if that’s the best approach from a dollars-and-sense standpoint. Here’s some good news: Last year, the College Board reported that we saw theninth consecutive year of reduced education borrowing. Keep up the good work.

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