I have two children, a fifth-grader and a second-grader, and although we have a good seven years before the oldest heads off to college, my husband and I have already had the college financing talk several times. How much money should we be saving for college? What are the chances that they will receive scholarships? These are just two of the many questions that we’ve asked ourselves over the years.

If you’re a parent and you haven’t yet had the college savings talk with your spouse, then the first question you need to answer is whether you will pay for your child’s college education — or even have the ability to contribute.

The time between 2000 and 2010 was a lost decade for the middle class. Annual wages declined, unemployment peaked and still remains high, and the housing market took a dive from which it hasn’t yet fully recovered.

Today, in this post-recession era, middle class families are left to decide between saving for a child’s college education or saving for retirement — and the decision can be difficult. Take this first step seriously and really crunch the numbers. Are you on track with your retirement savings? Can you afford to retire comfortably should something happen to Social Security? Can you afford to reduce your retirement savings to start saving for college?

Once you determine whether you can, or even want, to help pay for your child’s college education, then my advice is to meet with a financial advisor who is willing to teach you about all of the college savings options out there. There are 529 plans, prepaid tuition plans, the Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) and more.

It is wise to make sure that you fully understand your investment options and don’t just follow someone’s advice blindly. Finding the right financial advisor, one who can teach you about college investment options, can make the difference between a successful college savings plan and a money pit.

If your children are older and entering college in the next year or two, then there are other options to consider. Scholarships, grant programs, internship opportunities and good old-fashioned hard work. Although work is a dirty four-letter word to some teens today, it is a great way for your children to help pay for their own college education.

If you’re a parent, what is your college savings plan?

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