Lots of things we do seem like a lot of fun – until the bill comes due. Whether you’re out with friends, test driving a new car, or making plans to continue education after high school, current fun and future dreams can come to a screeching halt when the reality of paying for it comes clear.

It was so great to get that acceptance letter last spring. Kids and parents alike were excited. But then August arrived, and the first semester bill came due. And the second semester bill is right around the corner.

The reality for too many Maine families is that they start to think in earnest about how to pay for college in January of their child’s senior year of high school. It seemed so far off when the kids were little. As parents, we are so busy with soccer and dance, friends and family – not to mention the cost of raising a child – that it doesn’t feel like a priority as the kids are growing up.

Then, all of a sudden, it’s time.

And also for too many Maine families, concern about the ability to make college happen for their children dampens the aspirations of the parents and, therefore, their kids. They want to support their child in continuing their education after high school – but they are afraid to raise expectations, much less promise it, for fear they won’t be able to deliver.

The program that I run, the Alfond Scholarship Foundation, makes a small but, we hope, important step to support families by awarding a $500 Alfond Grant to every baby born a Maine resident. We’ve been doing it automatically since 2013, and between 2009 and 2012 we did it for Maine families who opened a NextGen 529 College Investing Account before the child’s first birthday.

To date, we have invested more than $25 million on behalf of more than 50,000 Maine children. That’s a great start on a bright future for these kids, and for our state.

We do this because we know that Maine needs a more educated workforce, and because we know that education after high school keeps open more opportunities for Maine’s young people.

And, national studies have shown that a child with a college savings account – even with only a few hundred dollars in the account – is three times more likely to go to college, and four times more likely to graduate.

We call our program the Harold Alfond College Challenge because everyone has to do their part: kids, parents, schools and communities.

For parents (and kids), the first step is understanding what your options are and how to access them. There’s the alphabet soup of financial aid (FAFSA, EFC); understanding the difference between grants and loans, between federal and institutional aid; and knowing what scholarships are out there and how to apply for them.

Then, comes the step of cobbling it all together to pay for college. Very few Maine families are in a position to simply write a check to cover the cost of college. But recognizing that, when all of the resources available are combined, what you pay is quite different from the “sticker price,” college can feel – and be – much more within reach.

Our partners at FAME (the Finance Authority of Maine) are a tremendous resource for Maine families, with great information available on its website to help families plan and navigate the process. FAME also administers Maine’s NextGen program, which is where the Alfond Scholarship Foundation invests its grant funds on behalf of Maine children.

Understanding what you can do now, and what you can do over time, can reduce the stress and increase the resources available to pay for college. Here are a few tips:

  • Start early, and keep it simple. Start with an envelope or a piggy bank if that makes it easy to get going. Once you’ve built the habit, move on to something that offers a little more structure and even an opportunity for growth: a savings account, a 529 account or a Roth IRA. You don’t have to do it all at once, and you won’t be able to do it all at once. But you have to take the first step.
  • A little bit can make a big difference. Don’t worry about saving tens of thousands of dollars. It will seem out of reach, and you’ll talk yourself out of it before getting started. Set a savings goal that is realistic for your family, and then make sticking to it a priority. Then, whether it is a special occasion like a birthday or holiday, or even a financial milestone like no longer paying for daycare, think about using a portion of what you would have spent and moving it into college savings.
  • A dollar saved or invested is a dollar you don’t have to borrow later. Even if you can only save a small percent of what college will cost, and even if other forms of financial aid will help to fill the gap, knowing you can count on what you have set aside — to help lessen any debt you (or your child) will need to take on — should be a big motivator.
  • Expect your child to do her share. When I was growing up, 50 percent of each paycheck I earned at the local Dairy Queen went into my college savings account. And guess what I asked each of my kids to do? The result: I had money to contribute to my own education, just as my kids are able to do for theirs. Each family is different, but think and talk about what works for you and for your children. Being responsible for a piece of their own future isn’t a bad thing.

Colleen Quint is the parent of three children and president and CEO of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation, a non-profit organization that awards a $500 Alfond Grant to every baby born a Maine resident. To date, the program has awarded more than $25 million to more than 50,000 Maine children in support of their future education.