Charlotte experts offer 9 ways to think about college expenses

Vanessa Infanzon

Photo by Francis Marion

My kids are in the eighth and fifth grades. Although we’ve put a small amount away for them in a 529 College Foundation plan, it’s not nearly enough to carry them through four years of school.

I spoke with two certified financial planners in Charlotte to find out what they see in their practice and what they suggest to their own clients.

Here are 9 ways to think about college expenses:

Michael Baker

Manage financial expectation early. Michael Baker is a certified financial planner with Vertex Capital Advisors. He’s noticed the “sticker shock” look on his clients’ faces after they’ve seen tuition costs. He suggests anticipating that costs will be higher than what you expected.

Parents are worried about how they’re going to navigate the costs without sabotaging their own retirement or current financial situation. Baker strongly recommends that families discuss a budget with their student early in the college search process. Talking about college costs, school debt and financial success can lead to realistic expectations for parents and their students.

Decide on the purpose for attending college. Rather than think of college as the next step in life, Baker suggests for families to consider the reasons for taking the next step. “I usually like to ask, what’s the goal?” Baker said. “Is the goal for your child to have a degree, or is the goal for your child to be prepared and be an independent adult?” The answer to this question will determine your path toward choosing a college that makes the most financial sense.

Make it a business decision. Words like “return on investment” and “cost benefit analysis” are not typically used in the college search process. Baker believes these business concepts must be a part of the decision. Asking questions about a plan to pay off school debt, repay a retirement plan and what career options are available after graduation need to be asked before beginning school.

Jim McGehee

Remove emotions from the college decision. Emotions have a way of clouding our judgement about important decisions. Jim McGehee is a certified financial planner with McGehee Wealth Advisory Group, Inc., in Charlotte.

He’s seen how an emotional tie to an alma mater can persuade families to make decisions that don’t exactly fit financially or academically. He suggests that the focus be on the needs of the student and the availability of quality academic programs that fit for a future career.

Consider a gap year. Some high school graduates need a year to figure out what they want to do. McGehee has seen students travel, work, volunteer and go on mission trips the year after high school graduation.

“We’re talking a lot more about the concept of gap years,” he said. “For at least half of my clients’ kids, that’s not a bad idea. A lot of kids don’t seem to be 100 percent ready after they get out of high school. Many kids get more value out of their four years of college if they’ve had a year to figure out what they want to do.”

Study at a community college first. Both Baker and McGehee buy into the saying, “It’s not where you started, it’s where you graduate.” For families with concerns about how to pay for school, they recommend two years of community college courses, fulfilling common requirements and then transferring to a choice school.

Use the resources available. Take full advantage of state websites such as and Future Scholar, high school counselors, and admissions and financial aid staff. They might have access to loan, grant and scholarship options available that are unknown to you.

Learn to live on a budget at an early age. Tuition and room and board are not the only college costs to plan for. Travel to and from home, books, entertainment and clothes start to add up. Before students are in college, they should know how to live within their means. McGehee recommends students manage a budget before they start college, too.

“That’s the first step for many kids – to not have mom and dad looking over how they’re spending their money every day,” he said. “It’s a tough transition.”

Look at every available option for money. Students can contribute to college while attending classes by working part-time. On-campus jobs are convenient and can help financially, but they can also provide networking opportunities with faculty and valuable work experience for their resume.


Vanessa Infanzon is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. In her former life, she worked in Student Life at Davidson College, UNC Charlotte and Queens University of Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @morethanVMI.