This article is by staff writer Holly Johnson.

I just sat down to write this post a moment ago and literally stared at the screen for twenty minutes. I’m still ready to bolt out the door at a second’s notice, if needed, and the tears won’t stop rolling down my face.

But thankfully, these are good tears.

My mother told me I might feel this way on my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Like it or not, the little person I gave birth to five years ago is no longer a baby, but a little girl.

A fearless little girl.

I looked into her eyes this morning and told her how much I loved her.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said, with tears in my eyes and a knot in my stomach.

“Stop worrying, momma,” she said.

“You know I can’t,” was all I could say as she beamed with excitement for her first day at school. Then the bus turned the corner and she smiled and took off without a care in the world.

Moments later, she was gone.

I’m so happy for her, but I’m also afraid. At home, I can keep her safe. I can protect her. But at school, she’s on her own — left to navigate a big, scary world without my help.

As a worrier, I also think a lot about what happens next — maybe too much. Her school career may have just started today; but we all know that, just like the last one, this chapter also has an end. And when that day comes, I will no longer have a kindergartener, but an 18-year-old young adult. I’ve been around long enough to know that it will be here before I know it. And as I plan for her future, I often wonder, “Am I doing enough?”

The growing costs of a college education

My oldest daughter was born in 2009 — a year when the average cost for an education at a four-year college or university came in at around $21,093 in today’s dollars. And now, just five years later, College Board statistics show that the costs of a four-year-degree skyrocketed to an average of $30,336 for the 2013-14 school year.

But these huge tuition rate increases aren’t exactly a new trend. A recent Bloomberg chart-of-the-day shows that the average costs of higher education have exploded over 500 percent since 1985 — the exact year I turned five-years-old. To put that number into context, medical costs grew 286 percent and the consumer price index increased 121 percent during the same time period. In other words, college costs grew faster than almost anything else.

But all of that is out of my control. Try as I might, there is literally nothing I can do to keep spiraling tuition fees in check, or ensure that a college degree is within her reach when she comes of age. When it comes to the cost of college, I can only watch in despair as the news goes from bad to worse.

But I do have some control on my end. I can do what I do best, which is to save, save, and save some more. Other than that, I can only hope and pray that things will be better for her than they are for today’s generation of aspiring students.

College savings: What we’re doing so far

I’m glad I realized how important this issue would be to me so early in my daughter’s lives. The truth is, I’ve been socking money away for them since they were babies. It all started with money they received from relatives when they were born, or “free money” as I saw it.

Money that was likely meant for diapers and formula always made its way into my children’s savings accounts so fast their little heads would spin if they knew it. Then, once my second daughter was born, I started a 529 account in each of their names. And that’s when the savings really started to grow.

Since then, we’ve socked away any money they’ve gotten for birthdays and holidays, and contributed small amounts monthly ourselves. It all adds up.

In fact, it really is amazing how small amounts of money can grow over the months and years of a child’s lifetime. It’s hard to believe it, but my children already have thousands of dollars saved for college at the young age of 3 and 5. Still, I’m afraid it won’t be enough. That’s why, a couple of years ago, we started looking for other ways to grow the amount of money we would have available to pay for their college. And we didn’t need to look far.

Using rental income for college tuition

My husband and I became unlikely landlords in 2007 at only 27 years old. Our first rental was a small brick ranch home we chose to buy on somewhat of a whim. Shortly after its purchase, we turned our first home into a rental and upgraded into a slightly larger, nicer home for ourselves.

We weren’t sure what we were doing all the time, but we’ve always been happy to learn as we go and fly by the seat of our pants. And mostly through trial and error, we have learned a lot since then — so much that I’ve come to see our inexperience as a good thing. In a lot of ways, we were just too dumb to be afraid, which is probably the only reason we became landlords in the first place. In a strange twist of fate, it appears that our lack of awareness might have led to our best financial decision so far.

Regardless, we were making plenty of progress on the home’s respective 30-year mortgages by late 2011, but we still had many years left to go. But it was around that time that home mortgage rates began hitting record-lows and, as always, my wheels started turning.

I wondered if it would be possible to refinance our loans into loans with shorter, more-favorable terms. If we could, we might be able to move the process along and free up thousands of dollars of monthly income in the process. Even if we couldn’t refinance for some reason, I thought it was worth a shot.

Persistence pays off

Anyone who has ever refinanced a home knows what a huge pain the process can be. Well, trust me when I say that refinancing a rental home is an even more difficult experience then refinancing your primary residence. With both homes, the ordeal was somewhat of a nightmare.

Fortunately, after several months of trying and plenty of heartache, I was able to get both of our rental homes moved onto 15-year-loans. And amazingly, with a substantially lower interest rate, the monthly payments hardly budged. That means that our current rentals, while temporarily less profitable, will now be paid off in approximately twelve years — just in time for our daughter to turn 17. They currently rent for a little less than $2,000, but should rent for quite a bit more by then. And, if all goes as planned, most of that money will go straight into the college funds of my little girls.

Sometimes all we can do is save

The fact that the cost of a college degree has risen over 500 percent since I was my daughter’s age does not bring me comfort; but again, I can only control so much. I can’t change the fate of higher education any more than I can sit in my daughter’s school today and hold her hand.

I’m sure we’re all afraid of what kind of world our children might find when they graduate from high school. And if not, we probably should be. But we all know deep down that there is nothing we can do to soften this world for them. So we do what we can, and sometimes it means that all we can do is save for them and hope for the best.

On my daughter’s first ever day of school, I want her to know that I am proud of who she is and excited to see who she will become. And I want her to know that I’ll never stop worrying about her future, even if she asks.

I’m her mother, after all, and it just isn’t possible.

Are you worried about paying for college? Do you have any unconventional ways to pay for college?

This article is about Education

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This is a guest post from Kathleen O’Malley, who writes about finding joy in a simple, frugal life at Frugal Portland.

It happened fast. We barely talked about it, but all of a sudden, about a week after we got engaged — and before we were really ready — my fiancé and I had combined our finances.

I can pinpoint the impetus: Southwest Airlines was offering a promotion where if you got both the Plus and the Premier credit card and spent x dollars on one, y dollars on the other, you got a Companion Pass through the end of 2015. “We fly Southwest a lot anyway,” we reasoned. “And we’ll hit the minimums soon since this wedding we’re planning isn’t going to be cheap. We might as well get one of us a $5 ticket every time we fly somewhere together.”

So we applied for credit cards in both our names and started spending money on wedding-related things. The photographer wanted a deposit, but would she take payment in full seven months before the event? Of course she would! So too would the portable bathroom people and the half dozen other vendors required to turn a party into a wedding. Just like that, we’d hit those spending goals.

Combining checking accounts was easier than I expected. I prepared a full speech about how we should use my credit union instead of his “evil” bank, but my fiancé didn’t need a speech. He simply moved most of his money into my account, we put his name on it, and it was smooth sailing.

Until I went shopping with my sister a few weeks later.

I hadn’t purchased makeup in at least a year, and I was running low on supplies. We were at Sephora, and I had a few items in my little shopping basket. I calculated the cost: It was over $100. I started to panic. Blood rushed to my cheeks, my palms started sweating, and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t spend “his” money on makeup. That would be irresponsible!

See, up to this point, every time we swiped those cards, we were buying things together. Wedding stuff? Groceries? Dog food? Clearly distinguishable as combined spending. But this? This was something just for me.

Now, it wasn’t a frivolous purchase (or at least, not entirely), and it was absolutely something I would have bought without a second thought before we had joined financial forces. And the reason combining finances was smooth sailing from the beginning is because he knew my money philosophy inside and out, because he read Frugal Portland from start to finish, reading about my path into — and eventually out of — debt.

So I texted him. “I’m at Sephora with my sister. I want to buy makeup, but I’m feeling guilty.”

Immediately he texted back. “You don’t need my permission to buy makeup any more than I need your permission to buy a pizza tonight.”

I started to relax, then he wrote again. “We’ll run into issues like this and talk through them. We’re doing it together. I love you.”

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and bought the makeup. My sister noted that I looked completely different after the text: more relaxed, more confident, happier. And I was.

That was a few months ago, and we’ve had our share of hiccups since then, but I’m glad we already have combined finances. I no longer see it as my money or his money. It’s our money. We have shared money goals — like saving half our income — and we’re on the same page. Saving half is something we do at the beginning of the month, and we keep the rest in our checking account. We still have the same credit cards, so there are no secrets.

It’s funny, actually. That one conversation — where I was so upset, worried, and nervous — was the only time either one of us asked for permission to spend. My sister and I were shopping online for her bridesmaid dress (would you believe it, the dog ate her original one?) and I asked if he had the credit card number memorized. He did, and rattled it back to me. “What did I just agree to?” he asked jokingly, after the transaction was complete.

The moral of this story is to pick a mate who shares your vision for financial goals. They don’t have to align 100 percent, but you ought to be able to talk openly about money with the person you’re spending the rest of your life with.

And try to save half your income.

This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

When I wrote an article about poverty, I wasn’t sure where Brandon and Leah, the two people I shared about, would be in the next few months. I needn’t have wondered. Turns out, nothing has changed. Despite receiving money from various people for rent, access to free babysitting, and bags of groceries, the last few months have been peppered with evictions, arrests, jail, and now prison. Unfortunately, I am not surprised, and you probably aren’t either.

It is really easy for me to identify their stupid financial (and life!) decisions and ignore the impact that their life history has had on their future. But people don’t have to have drug addicts for parents or live in poverty to struggle financially or to struggle to fulfill life’s potential.

Take another friend I was talking to the other day. Barely into his thirties, Adam has a lot of things going for him: He’s healthy, has no consumer debt, and a job with lots of autonomy and flexibility, even if it’s not the highest paying job around.

“I feel like a failure,” he said, eyes lowered to the ground. “I’ll never be anything more than a manual laborer.”

“What do you mean?” I said, probably with more bluntness than the situation called for. “You’re in your thirties. Statistically, you have decades of working life ahead of you. If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else.”

Slowly, he said, “It’s not that easy; I don’t know what to do. I am not good at anything.”

Talking with him is frustrating. Instead of offering solutions, I should just be quiet and listen — because I really don’t get it. My lifetime will not be long enough to complete all my dreams and schemes. And why can’t he see that he has potential to be just about anything else he wants to be? Not that there is anything wrong with manual labor at all, but apparently he’s not satisfied. Argh.

I don’t know all the factors that make us who we are, but the GRS editor sent me a link to an article that just might help people. Little people. Specifically, help little people become big people who tell the truth about themselves and about their future.

While you should go read this article to get the whole story, I’ll share a little. The author’s son’s teacher believes that her impact extends beyond teaching her students about math. Because of this, she asks her students to request four fellow classmates they would like to sit with the following week. The students know their written requests may or may not be honored.

Nice, right? But so what? What the teacher does with this information is the beauty of the story.

The author, Glennon Doyle Melton, writes: “Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect to other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down — right away — who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.”

The teacher is looking for children who are disconnected. They connect disconnectedness to school violence in the article, but that’s not the only thing that — in my opinion — is related to disconnectedness.

When she finds children who are disconnected, they just need a little help.

“It is like mining for gold — the gold being those little ones who need a little help — who need adults to step in and TEACH them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts with others.”

It makes me wonder about Brandon, Leah, and Adam. How would their life trajectories be different if someone had really paid attention to them when they were children? What if someone had poured truth into their souls, so that these three could tell themselves the truth about their past, present, and future selves? Because the lies we tell ourselves have a lasting impact, not to mention a potentially crushing impact on our financial health.

What if someone had been able to get Brandon to believe that his father’s abandonment had nothing to do with him? What if someone had been able to get Leah to understand that she was priceless … and she could wait for a guy who valued her accordingly instead of settling for addicts and abusers? What if someone had taught Adam how to share his gifts with others and not be ashamed if those gifts weren’t prized by society?

Who can deny that these situations have created people who make terrible (or, in the case of Adam, suboptimal) financial decisions? And in the case of Leah, in particular, her decisions have a ripple effect far beyond her personally. Taxpayers are funding her current and former stays in state prisons. Let’s not forget her children in the foster care system or her use of the legal system.

My optimistic heart holds onto the hope that it’s not too late for these adults to turn their lives around — but it’s easier to develop good habits in kids, right?

Speaking of easier, it would have been easier to write about saving money on baby stuff. Because writing this article has left me a little uncomfortable. But if I want to improve life for someone, I might need to get uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable because doing what this teacher does requires a commitment, a lasting commitment. It’s more than throwing money at a problem, it’s taking the time to get to know a child. It’s taking the time to mentor that child. And it requires patience to keep helping the child back up after he or she has failed. Clearly this is a marathon, not a sprint.

What do you think about this teacher’s approach? Have you ever done anything like this?

This reader story comes from long-time reader and commenter Bill McFadin, aka Cybergeezer, who commented that he had submitted a story months ago that never ran. We asked if he would resubmit the article, which he kindly did — and then he submitted another one! Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. Want to submit your own reader story? Here’s how.

I maintain that the best way for you to pay off your debts may be just a matter of your personality. My own experience with getting out of debt goes back about 25 years. I didn’t get a particularly early start; I’m 68 now and attacked my debt in my early 40s.

There was precious little being written on the subject back then.

There was no Suze Orman, no Dave Ramsey — at least, I didn’t know about them — and there was no GRS because there was barely an Internet, much less any personal finance blogs. It was just me and a mountain of credit card debt.

Unlike so many today, I was fortunate not to have student debt from college. In the 1960s when I went to college, I didn’t even know anyone who had taken out loans for school. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it with their friends.

No, my debt at the time was all credit card, courtesy of two ex-wives and some over-zealous spending of my own. I looked at it like losing weight. I wanted to lose the weight of my debt. And that’s when and how I decided that success with losing debt is just like success (or failure) with reaching any other long-term goal, like losing weight.

Never needed to lose weight? You may have had some other goal in your past that will tell you what your “debt-paying personality” is. Maybe it was quitting smoking or some other long-term goal. Whatever, I encourage you to look back at how you did it.

Competing debt-paying personalities

I have nothing against people like Suze and Dave, except for their insistence that their way is the only one that will work and the only one you should consider.

Suze, and what seems (to me, at least) to be the majority of those writing and talking on the subject, will tell you the only way to success is to attack your highest-interest-rate debts first. It makes sense because those debts are the ones that cost you the most in useless interest. (And, frankly, if you don’t think interest on debt is useless, you’re probably a creditor and not a debtor.)

Dave calls his method the “debt snowball” and it involves paying off the lowest-balance debts first. His method also makes sense because you see each debt disappearing more quickly. And there’s no feeling like that of seeing an account that’s paid in full with a zero balance.

Of course, in either case, when you have the first bill paid off, you put that new extra money toward the next debt in the sequence and so on.

But think back to that earlier goal and how you attacked it.

Are you the kind of person who likes to see some immediate success as a spur to keep going? Did you lose two pounds the first week or go without a cigarette for a half-day, then a full day?

Or were you able to keep your eye on the eventual goal and keep on keeping on, regardless of the inevitable setbacks?

Let your personality support your goals

My theory, and what I applied to my own debt, is that your personality in attacking other problems or reaching other goals will determine your own personal and best method of eliminating debt.

That need to see immediate gains toward your goal is well-served by using Dave’s “debt snowball” idea. If that describes your way of getting to a goal, this may be your way to debt relief. Sure, the interest will continue to pile up, but you’ll also have that great feeling of seeing bills paid being off.

But if you’re the kind of person who can stick to the program regardless of how slowly it starts, you might be a candidate for paying off the highest interest first. You won’t see the quick results; but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you are making slow, steady progress toward the debt-free life. And, importantly with this method, you’ll be paying less overall in interest.

What worked for me?

I realized that, although I hadn’t been all that successful at the weight-loss effort, I did feel motivated by even tiny early successes. I knew that in other things in my life, I had stuck with it when I saw immediate results.

The point of all this psycho-rambling is simple: There is no one-style-fits-all approach to killing debt. What works best for you may not be what works best for your friend, neighbor or co-worker. And your own failure to kill the debt might just be linked to who you are and what your goal-reaching personality is.

But it doesn’t matter if the job gets done, right?

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. It can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a paid or professional writer and is just learning about money like you are. Unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed.

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