When Sabrina Malone found out she was pregnant with her fourth child, she cried.
It’s not that she didn’t love her children. And it’s not that she didn’t want more. But there was a nagging question that distressed her: how on earth could she and her husband afford raising and educating so many children?
That was 12 years ago, and so far, the Malones—now a family of eight—have made it work.
But they’ve just entered into one of the most challenging financial stages of their lives: With a junior at Delaware State University, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and two college-bound high school seniors, the Malones will have four children on college campuses next fall.
A bachelor's degree is now one of the most expensive purchases many Americans make in their lifetime, with the average public university costing about $15,000 this year. College prices have climbed while salaries were stagnant, leaving families anxious about affording bursar bills.
The Malone family is an extreme example of this nearly universal pain point for today's middle class: With a barely six-figure income for a family of eight, Sabrina and her husband Daniel Sr. earn too much to qualify for much need-based financial aid, but not enough to actually pay out of pocket.
“We’re people who technically have no money, but who still don’t qualify for most need-based scholarships. And yet we’re doing it,” she says. With two kids attending colleges where the sticker price totals roughly $100,000 a year, they are affording college.
Here’s the Malone family’s strategy for earning six college degrees while borrowing as close to zero as possible.
Right around the time Sabrina had the breakdown over affording baby four, she and her husband decided living in New Jersey—where they both grew up—was too expensive. At the time, they owned a three-bedroom home on a half acre in the central part of the state. Their property taxes cost $8,000 a year, and they paid another $3,000 in car insurance.
Sabrina, who runs WorkingMom.com website about balancing careers and children, could work from anywhere. Daniel Sr. spent two decades as a general contractor before going into sales for home improvement stores, and he figured he could transfer to a new store location easily.
An online cost-of-living calculator pointed them south to Delaware, one of the lowest-tax states in the country. In fact, when the real-estate agent told them property taxes for the five-bedroom home they were looking at in Dover would cost $1,000, they thought she must have meant at least $1,000 per quarter. When they learned it was the annual total, they laughed.
The deal was sealed when they added up the numbers and realized Daniel Sr. would need just a minimum wage job with benefits in Delaware for them to have the same amount of money left over after covering necessities.
“What state you live in makes an absolute difference to how much money you have left in your paycheck,” Sabrina says.
Baseball or Bust
Many parents struggle with how to talk to their children about money and what they can afford to pay for college. But the Malones broached the subject early.
Sabrina and Daniel Sr. stressed the importance of academic accomplishment, telling their kids from a young age that they were expected to go to college and that they would need academic scholarships to help pay.
They didn’t encourage dozens of expensive extracurricular activities—just the opposite, actually. While summers were open to try any kind of recreational activity, during the school year the kids had the option to play just one sport: baseball or softball in the spring. Aside from the hole it’d put it their budget, logistically there wasn’t time to drive everyone to unique activities all over town, Sabrina says.
Sabrina is 50 and Daniel Sr. is 54, and their youngest is just 9 years old. They don’t have years of work left to go into debt for their children's college. And their kids were raised understanding their parents wouldn’t jeopardize financial security to pay tuition bills.
“It’s not one conversation,” says Sabrina. “It’s many conversations about reality, economics and what they want out of life.”
Sabrina explained to the kids, for example, that if she and her husband get too old or too sick to continue working, and they don’t have money set aside, then they’d likely become a burden on the kids right when they were trying to start their own families. These types of conversations came up repeatedly—and still do, particularly when someone isn’t giving it their all in school.
Dinner's at 4 p.m.
One thing the Malones didn’t start doing when the kids were young: saving for college. They tried, of course. But life got in the way—illnesses, job losses, four maternity leaves in a decade. Each time they built up some money, they had to use it for other purposes. By the time the oldest kids started high school, Sabrina estimates they had less than $2,000 set aside for each child's college education.
So in 2016, as their oldest son Daniel’s freshman year of college was approaching, they started squirreling away money any way they could.
Sabrina required all the licensed drivers in the house to take a six-hour defensive driving course, which reduced their car insurance premiums by more than 10%. She called Comcast to complain about the ever-rising price of their bundle package for cable, phone and Internet. She planned to cancel, but the company agreed to cut the price to its original, a savings of 35%.
The Malones have never been spendthrifts—the furniture in their living room is nearly 20 years old and their newest car has more than 100,000 miles on it—and that's helped them stick to a strict budget recently.
There’s no eating out, unless it’s for a special occasion. For a family of eight, even McDonald's costs $60, Sabrina says. To avoid giving in to the kids’ pleas to stop for something on the drive home, Sabrina has dinner ready no later than 4 p.m. every weekday.
"When they get home, there's always food ready to be shoveled into their mouths," she says.
When the time came to start entrance exams and college visits, Sabrina scaled back the time she spent on WorkingMom.com and essentially became a full-time college and financial aid counselor. She figured if she can help her kids find and get into colleges where they pay little to nothing, that will add up to far more than what she'd be able to take home from a salary. She spends much of her days managing applications, transcripts, essays, and financial aid and scholarship applications. She shares a lot of what she learns—and gets support from—an active Facebook group where parents chat about paying for college.
After applying to seven colleges, Daniel Jr. chose the second most affordable, the nearby Delaware State University. He received two scholarships that covered his tuition, and the Malones paid the rest of the bill for the first year.
"It was hard to get that room and board money,” Sabrina says.
When he returned for his sophomore year, Daniel Jr. snagged a $3,000 scholarship for returning students—it covered his meal plan—and he became a resident adviser to get free board. Now a junior, Daniel is taking 19 credits this semester so he can graduate on time after he switched his major last year to study music.
“Four-year scholarships are four-year scholarships,” Sabrina says. “Any additional semesters would require loans or more money from us.”
When it was time to find a college for Christiana, child two of six, they set their sights on some of the country’s most selective schools. Knowing Ivy League colleges reject thousands of qualified students a year, Sabrina and Christiana did everything they could to shore up her application.
She practiced SAT questions five days a week for about 10 weeks, boosting her PSAT score by 240 points. They spent $100 on a writing workshop, so Christiana could enhance her personal statement and essays. And to improve her odds of acceptance, she applied early decision to her top choice school.
It paid off—she started in the engineering program at UPenn in August. The university’s need-based financial aid covered more than 80% of the cost for the family, bringing their bill down to about $10,000 a year. (The university is one of a small group of elite colleges wealthy enough to offer need-based scholarships to middle and upper-middle class families.)
Now, Sabrina is starting the whole process over with her two middle children.
One of those children, Nick, is adopted. As a result, Sabrina says, tuition prices and financial aid policies are less a focal point than for the other children, because he has access to private scholarships targeted specifically for adopted and foster children. The other middle child, a daughter named Angelica, wants to become a doctor. She's casting a wide net, with the goal of finding a college that will accept her dual enrollment credits, has a decent medical school acceptance rate, and will allow her to graduate debt-free, since she’ll have to borrow significantly for medical school.
One Takeaway Tip
The single piece of advice Sabrina stresses for other families approaching the college application process? Use net price calculators early and often so you understand how much a college will actually cost your family.
That’s how the Malones narrowed in on a group of colleges where Daniel’s stats put him comfortably in the range for merit aid. And it’s how they decided with Christiana to pass on an offer from a small, elite liberal arts school for a free application and weekend visit. Even with financial aid, the college would have still cost them $35,000 a year, a sum Sabrina says would have ruined the family financially.
If you don’t know what a college will cost before you apply, she says, you’re setting your family up for heartbreak.
“Your dream school is going to be an economic fit as well an academic fit.”