During move-in day at Penn State, both my parents had to drag me out of their Camry and commission a forklift to force me into my dorm room. OK, I’m being dramatic. But I was incredibly unhappy to be attending this (unbeknownst to me at the time) fine educational establishment. I didn’t really understand how I’d ended up here, as it was my last-choice school. My dad kept reminding me: I had been accepted to several other universities, however, with much bigger price tags. Penn State would offer me a great education at a fraction of the price. “This is what we can afford,” he said. “You’ll understand when you’re my age.”

Thankfully, it didn’t take quite that long for my epiphany. Within a few weeks of attending class and meeting my new best friends, I knew I’d made a smart decision. Was it the best decision? I was going to make sure of it.

The first lesson in planning and preparing for college is that you should try keeping an open mind and being flexible about where you or your child might end up. Ivy League schools are wonderful, but not if it means taking on piles of debt to attend. You have to be realistic about what you can comfortably afford. Many students are opting for state schools and community colleges where they can save a great deal of money. Others are skipping a year between high school and college and using that time to work and raise money for college. You need to do what’s best for you and your financial life.

Here’s some more advice on how to best afford college:

Parents: Start Saving Early.
It’s important to begin saving for college as soon as possible. Some parents are doing so before their kids are even born. The 529 college savings plan is a popular place to start. These plans are offered by each state and the savings are invested much like a 401(k) or an IRA where your money gets placed in mutual funds and other investment options. Your contributions grow tax-deferred so you don’t pay taxes once you start withdrawing the money towards education expenses. There are generally no income limitations or age requirements. You can compare plans at savingforcollege.com and know you don’t have to go with your state’s plan. You can choose from all states. Check out www.collegesavings.org for more detailed information about 529 plans.

Think Long-Term.
College is just four years long (hopefully). It’s an important chapter in your life, but not the only chapter. You want to think about your life after college – your career, your goals and responsibilities – before choosing a school. Does your first-choice college have a high job placement rate? Will your first-choice school require you to borrow a great deal of money to attend, which may set you back financially upon graduation? These are the types of critical questions we should ask before settling on a school.

Apply For Free Money.
There’s no better form of financial aid than free money such as scholarships and grants. There are countless scholarships for each and every type of student. Begin your search by visiting free databases at scholarships.com and fastweb.com. The earlier you apply, the better. In fact, there are many scholarships available to students in grades K-11, not just high school seniors. You can also continue searching for scholarships even after you are enrolled in college. Cast a wide net. Getting free money is a numbers game. Pursue less competitive scholarships, such as small awards and essay contests. They are easier to win and help you win bigger scholarships.

Go Easy on Loans.
If you need to borrow money to pay for your education expenses, start by applying for federal aid. These loans – including the Stafford and Perkins loans – tend to have low interest rates and come with a number of repayment options. To qualify, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA the year you’re applying to colleges. My rule of thumb is that you don’t want to borrow more than half of your anticipated starting salary. So, if you expect to earn $50,000 a year in your first year out of school, don’t borrow more than $25,000. Remember, you need to have money left over to pay the rent and eat!