Kids grow up so fast. Right now your baby may just be learning how to crawl, but before you know it he or she will be graduating from high school and headed off to college – and if you don’t have any money saved up to cover tuition, that could spell trouble.  Higher education is more expensive than ever these days, and if your child is forced to finance their degree on loans alone they could end up graduating with more than $40,000 in debt.  Therefore, it’s important for families to start saving up for college early.

This can be a tall order for many parents who have a mortgage to pay and their own retirement to think about.  Thankfully, though, there are a few tricks you can use to make the trial of maintaining your child’s college fund less, well, trying. For example, here are tips you can use to make saving for college simple and easy.

1. Stay on top of your budget. Every good savings plan starts with good budgeting. Keep a meticulous budget of all of your finances every month so you can see where every penny is going. Look for areas where you can “trim the fat” and reroute your money to a college savings account. Check out personal finance tips online to see how other families manage their budgets and try to apply their practices to your own finances.

2. Start a 529 account. Federal college savings plans, otherwise known as 529s, are a great way for families to start putting away money for tuition early. These tax-free plans allow your child’s tuition money to grow safely and securely, and opening one will make your child eligible for lower interest rates on their student loans if they have to apply for them. Best of all, many 529s can be opened with as little as $25 down.

3. Consider prepaid tuition.  Many states have started instituting prepaid tuition plans, a variation of the 529 plans, which allow you to pay off your child’s tuition at today’s rates instead of saving up and paying an inflated price in the future. Think of it like an investment – where you’re putting in money now for a cheaper education later. Since these plans are all state-run, you should make sure to research the terms and procedures for prepaid tuition plans in your state before you apply.

4. Crowd-Source Donations. Instead of asking for presents or gifts during your baby shower or your child’s first and second birthday, consider setting up a registry for donations to their future college tuition. You don’t want to do this for every major occasion, obviously, but creating a few “tuition registries” for your child as they grow can help take a major bite out of the tuition money they’ll need later on.

Saving for college isn’t difficult as long as you pace yourself. Start your child’s college fund as soon as they’re born and maintain it with small but frequent contributions. Using a tax-sheltered plan or prepaying tuition will give you a head start on this major expense, and if you’re consistent about your donations you may find that your child’s education is completely paid-for by the time they enroll.

What do you think? Do you have any suggestions about saving for college? Let me know in the comments!