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What’s the Plan? Family Prepares for College with Prepaid529 and Honest Conversations


College should be an exciting time for families, so when Joe and Courtney Panella started planning their family the couple was determined not to let the stress of finances get in the way of their children’s college experience. That meant if they were going to pay for college, they were going to need a creative game plan.

Their creativity kicked into gear in 2002 while watching television when they saw a commercial for Prepaid529’s open enrollment period. Joe and his wife realized that even with a three-year old and an infant, they had to make college savings a priority.

“We knew we needed to save up for their college education, but we hadn’t started yet and didn’t have anything in place besides a mutual savings account,” he said.

“There was nothing accumulating since we hadn’t been disciplined enough to consistently contribute to it.”

So the couple decided to pull together savings and the equity from their home to pay for Prepaid529 contracts for both daughters.

“My wife and I thought, ‘God forbid something happen to us, we need to leave something behind for our kids to get their educations. We believe firmly in education.”

The couple secured four-year contracts for each of their daughters.  Over the next 18 years they spent time talking to their daughters about their career aspirations and building realistic expectations for what type of college experience the family could afford.

 “It was really important to us that we have an honest discussion with our children about what the real finances are,” Joe said. “Your kids should know what you make for a living and they should know if it isn’t possible for us to afford an out-of-state college.”

While Prepaid529 accounts can be used at private Virginia colleges and universities and schools outside of Virginia, the benefits differ from the coverage of full time in-state undergraduate tuition and mandatory fees at a Virginia public college or university, and full tuition is unlikely to be covered at a private or out-of-state institution.

Ultimately each Panella daughter enrolled at the Virginia university that was a fit for their personalities, their career aspirations and the Panella family budget. Their older daughter went on to study homeland security and political science at a public research university, while their younger daughter is enrolled in a nursing program.

Because of their grades and advanced placement course credits that they completed in high school, each of the girls started college with more than 16 credits.

For the older Panella daughter that meant she could finish college in three years instead of the four her parents had prepaid for.

“She came to us and asked, ‘what should I do?” Joe said.

 “My wife and I sat her down and told her not to leave school. So she took a semester of college in the Czech Republic covered by Prepaid529. Now she’s got a heck of a resume for a 23 year old.”

Life abroad, immersed in the Czech language, exposed their daughter to citizens from all over the world and opened the door to an internship in the federal government, top security clearance and the opportunity to learn Czech and Arabic. She’s currently in Germany pursuing her master’s degree.

As for their younger daughter, the nursing student and natural nurturer of the family is one semester ahead in her program and doing well on her way to graduating on time.

For parents who think college is too far in the future to think about, Joe warned that time passes quickly with or without a savings plan.

“My wife and I aren’t doctors, we’re not rich,” he said. “I’m in sales, Courtney’s in human resources --- we just believe so firmly in our children getting an education.”

“We’re just turning 50 years old, we have our education needs met for our kids. There are no loans for them, and no loans for us. We have years left to play. What a nice feeling.”

How is Virginia529 making it easier for you and your family to save? Your experience could inspire another family to make their loved one’s dreams of higher education come true. Share your story today!

*This account owner’s experience with his Virginia529 accounts may not be representative of other account owners.

Resources to help you learn

Frequently Asked Questions

Find answers to the most common questions about 529 plans.

Smart Savers Academy

Tune in to a live episode and ask questions of the presenter, or watch a previously recorded webinar below.

Invest529 Portfolio Performance

Review and compare historical returns of Invest529 portfolios.