When we think of putting away dollars for a college education, visions of nickels and dimes dropping from our paychecks into a mystical piggy bank dance through our heads. We plan and we worry about what we spend, how much, where and on what. But what if the way we spent money actually resulted in dollars saved toward college? Well, fellow Frugalites, it can. Out there in the world, a handful of reward programs exist that will actually give us dollars, usually in the form of a percentage of our purchases, if we give our patronage to participating businesses. The nice thing about the programs detailed here is that they cost nothing to join.
The granddaddy of all such college reward programs is Upromise. It’s the biggest one out there with the most affiliates. Started in 2001, Upromise allows parents, students or anyone to register credit or debit cards that they already have with the program. Then, when you use the enrolled cards at the merchants and businesses that participate in the Upromise program, you will accumulate cash-back dollars to be used toward college education. Upromise claims that the average user earns almost $500 per year in college rewards. That’s enough to pay for a full class at some junior colleges. If you start using Upromise early enough, it could really make a serious impact in financing an education. The model was attractive enough that student loan leviathan Sallie Mae gobbled up the program after it started to get a lot of buzz among both participating businesses and college savers.
SAGE (Savings and Growth for Education) Scholars is a way for parents and students to earn reward points that can be redeemed for tuition discounts at colleges that are participating in the program. The rewards are earned by using one of the SAGE Scholar partner businesses for financial needs, such as mortgages, insurance or retirement and investor services.
The nice thing about SAGE Scholars is that more than 200 colleges participate in the program, and the rewards are often redeemable on a dollar for dollar basis. So, for example, if you earn 3,000 reward points, you could receive $3,000 off the cost of a year’s tuition at a participating school. One of the drawbacks, however, is that as big as the savings potential is with SAGE Scholars, you can earn no more than one year’s worth of tuition per student at a participating school. Leftover rewards can be used for a sibling’s tuition, as long as the sibling also attends a partner school. But the program is free, and if you or your child decides not to attend one of the SAGE partner schools, you’re not really losing anything except the freedom of choosing who you may otherwise have done business with.
Similar to Upromise, BabyMint used to offer the same type of in store shopping rewards as Upromise but has switched to a more online oriented business model. In order to earn the rewards through BabyMint, you sign on through their website and then link to their partner merchant websites that way. This is how BabyMint tracks the purchases on which it bases your tuition rewards. While there is a bit of overlap between the two programs, BabyMint does partner with some different retailers and services.
Another thing that makes BabyMint attractive is that you can link it directly with a Section 529 savings program or other type of custodial account for college, or even directly to your SAGE Scholars account. If you choose to link your BabyMint and SAGE Scholars accounts together, each reward dollar you earn through BabyMint can be applied directly toward a tuition discount at a participating SAGE Scholars college.
Linking your existing credit or debit cards to Upromise, SAGE Scholars or BabyMint is free and has no effect on your cards’ other reward programs (such as frequent flyer miles). However, for those who are hard core believers in credit card reward programs and who would rather send your kids to college than yourself on an off-peak flight to Albuquerque, a few credit card issuers have jumped into to the tuition affinity business as well. Fidelity offers a card that will deposit a percentage of what you spend directly into your Fidelity 529 college savings account. BabyMint and Upromise also have affiliated credit card programs, as does FutureTrust, a much smaller reward program in the same vein as the former two.
These programs all can be beneficial and creative ways to save dollars toward college. Be careful, however. Spending more money than you intend to or paying more for a product because you get college rewards goes much farther in undermining your financial position than simply saving the dollars you spent. Use the programs – they’re free – but use them wisely and within your means.