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NEW YORK, June 15 (Reuters) - Sometime soon after his fourth child was born, it dawned on Howard Krooks that he was going to be on the hook for 12 consecutive years of college tuition payments when they all grew up.
It scared him into action.
"I'm a planner. I don't like surprises," said Krooks, an elder law attorney in Boca Raton, Florida.
Krooks figures he will spend upwards of $1 million to put four children through college. His oldest child is now 19 and attending a culinary institute in New York. His 16- and 14-year-olds are in high school, and his youngest, now 10, is about to start sixth grade.
Krooks has 529 college savings accounts for all of them, plus pre-paid tuition plans in Florida, where they now live. That pre-paid tuition can be converted to a credit for any institution if the child does not end up at a state school.
About 14 percent of U.S. families have four or more children, while 24 percent have three children, according to the Pew Research Center. Advance planning is key for those facing a long-haul of tuition payments. Depending on the age spread between their kids, college costs can double up for years or end up spread out for more than a decade.
Having multiple kids in college at once can be a boon for families receiving financial aid because the expected family contribution for tuition determined by the federal financial aid form will not shift - although living expenses and book fees will compound. But for families paying full freight, it means costs are condensed over a shorter period of time.
Jim Stehr, a financial adviser who runs Paragon East Advisors in Lafayette, California, is steering three kids through college in eight years. His oldest started school in 2014, and when he is all done in 2022, Stehr expects his total costs to be roughly $800,000.
Stehr started saving when his oldest was born, but there were no good 529 savings options at that point in his state, so he just put funds aside in taxable accounts.
"The good news is that I have most of the money they need, but I'm paying the price in capital gains," Stehr said.
Mitchell Walker, a retired businessman from Mount Pleasant, Texas, took the opposite approach out of necessity, when he was putting five kids from a blended family through college on a limited income.
When Walker got remarried, his kids were 17 and 13, and they were joined by his wife and her kids, who were 8, 6 and 5 at the time. Walker had nothing saved when his oldest started college, but eked out $300 a month from his budget.
That was enough to get started at a community college, before the son transferred to Texas A&M. The youngest of the kids graduated six years ago, ending 11 years of tuition payments over the course of 12 years.
"We took almost no loans," said Walker, who credits living in a small town with low living expenses plus a lot of belt tightening, for pulling off the feat. Walker is so keen on budgeting that he has a book coming out on his methodology(pouchplan.com/pages/book).
Dual-credit classes taken in high school also helped tremendously, because it allowed Walker's children to take a lighter class schedule in college and work more.
For Allan Ripp, who runs a public relations business in New York, the key to getting through 10 years of college tuition payments is the age spread of his children - who are now 32, almost 30 and 19. He got his oldest two through in six years, and then had a long gap before their younger son started last year.
"In my late 40s and 50s, it was a more financially solid period. We didn’t plan it that way, but it was a bit better," Ripp said.
While they did not have dedicated college savings accounts, Ripp was able to lean on his business and use cash flow to cover tuition. Ripp and his wife also kept their living expenses as low as possible, driving one car for 21 years.
When all the tuition payments are finished in three years, Ripp says he will actually be sad that his kids are done and grown.
"You’re always welcome to have the money you don’t spend on tuition, but I don’t think I’ll feel that it’s releasing us to go to Europe," he said. "We lead a pretty humdrum life." (Editing by Lauren Young and Andrew Hay)