Saving for college doesn't have to be daunting!

What happens when you start to think of sending your little one off to college? 

If you’re like most parents I know, your thoughts quickly flit from Pomp and Circumstance — and I can’t wait to see where she ends up! — to a sick, empty feeling in your stomach that comes from thinking about the cost.

Paying for college. The mere idea can make a parent’s head spin. If your strategy so far has been to hope for a scholarship, it’s time to make a more solid plan. 

I’ve long been a practitioner of the head-in-the-sand approach to college savings, but I knew I needed to do better. So I picked up the phone and called some financial planning experts, and I checked in with a few friends who have sent or are soon sending kids to college. What I learned made me feel a whole lot better. It can be boiled down to three big ideas:

1: No, the whole college-saving thing isn’t so complex or unrealistic that your only option is opting out. 

2: No, you don’t have to save the entire amount of your child’s future college bills. 

3: Yes, you can make and stick to a college savings plan that won’t upend your lifestyle.

Wrapping your head around those three ideas can be a good start to feeling more empowered about saving for college. I also asked the experts for a few practical tips for people just getting started on saving. Here’s what they advised:

Don’t overthink it. Saving for college isn’t rocket science. For instance, it’s not nearly as complex as the machinations most of us deal with just trying to get kids out the door each morning. Saving for college boils down to a simple game plan: Every month, put a little bit of money away. 

Take advantage of free online tools. For me, it helps to put these into two categories:

1: Tools to help you know how much to save. For this, the excellent site FinAid.org offers a Savings Plan Designer; the same site also has several other helpful savings calculators. 

2: Tools to help you decide where to save. Heard about a million conflicting descriptions of 529 plans? Visit College Savings Plans Network (collegesavings.org) to get unbiased information, compare features across plans, and get help deciding which, if any, 529 plan is right for you. The tax advantages make 529s a good bet for most families. But you can always opt for another kind of savings account; start with your bank or credit union if you have questions.

There’s no magic number. You can’t know for sure how much money you’re going to need for college. But it’s a safe bet you’re going to need some. The advice I got was to save what you can. Depending on your family’s circumstances that could be $200, $100 or even $10 a month. 

It all helps.

Start early. There may not be a magic number, but the fact remains: The earlier you start, the more interest will work in your favor. Here’s a simple example that even a math-phobic English major like myself can understand: If you start saving when your child is born, interest will make up 37 percent of your total savings. If you start when your child enters high school, interest will only account for 10 percent of your savings.

It’s never too late to start saving. It’s true: Starting early is best, but if you didn’t get started as early as you might’ve liked, don’t throw up your hands. You can still build a good-sized account by thinking creatively about how to boost it. 

One family I know cut out cable when their son was in 10th grade, putting that extra $70 a month into savings. It left their son with an extra $2,500 for college. 

They told me it was just the tip of the iceberg: Once they were in the savings frame of mind, they started squirreling away other sums, too, and soon had five times that amount saved. 

Another family I know similarly waited until their kids were in high school to start saving. But for four years they earmarked every pay raise and tax return for college — and ended up with a decent chunk saved.

In the end, the only bad plan for saving for college is no plan at all.