By May 1, high school students nationwide will decide where to go to college and, for many, with that decision will come debt.

In the classes we teach, my husband and I try to encourage parents, if they can, to start saving for their children’s college education as early as possible.

Recently, I wrote about our own daughter Olivia’s upcoming graduation. Because we started saving early enough, she will graduate without any loans. And we didn’t have to borrow.

Our lack of education debt drew lots of questions.

Lorraine, a reader from Sarasota, Florida, wanted to know: “How was (Olivia) able to achieve this accomplishment? Did she work part time or full time while attending college? Did she save money earned from babysitting or other jobs while she was in high school? Did she live at home? … Where did the money come from to pay her tuition and books?”

I’ll tell you.

By the time my husband and I had our first child, we were in our early 30s. We owned a home, and the mortgage took up less than 30 percent of our net monthly income. If you keep your housing payment – typically a family’s largest expense – at a manageable level, you can usually free up money to save.

We had been saving for retirement since our early 20s and have kept doing so, even while saving for college.

When we started saving for our children’s education, we were making good but not super-fat salaries. We bought used cars that we kept long enough that we didn’t have car payments for a decade or more. If you don’t have auto payments, that’s money that can be put into a college savings plan.

Before deciding how to save, we calculated how much we needed to invest on a monthly basis. It’s like retirement planning. You have to know your endgame – how much you need – so that you know how to start.

We tried a few calculators but settled on Vanguard’s “College savings planner” . Along with a little we had already saved, it estimated that we needed to invest about $210 a month to have enough for Olivia to go to a state school.

We decided to save using a tax-deferred 529 plan. We opened her account when she was 6. My husband and I chose the “age-based” investment option, which means that the younger the child, the more aggressive the investment strategy. As Olivia got closer to going to college, the money was automatically moved to more conservative positions.

We elected to invest in the 529 plan offered by the state of Maryland, where we live. It has low fees. And because we are residents, we get a $2,500 state tax deduction every year for each of our three children’s accounts.

Due to our contributions over the years, the low fees and the earnings growth, Olivia ended up with savings worth about $66,000. My husband and I made a few lump-sum payments whenever we got extra money. We started even earlier for our other two children, so we haven’t had to make any extra contributions. Depending on their school choice, they too will have enough to graduate debt-free.

Olivia took Advanced Placement courses in high school and scored high enough on the exams to earn college credit. She started at the University of Maryland College Park with a semester’s worth of credits, which reduced costs. She received $21,500 in merit-based scholarships, which covered about a fourth of the total cost of her attendance.

Olivia did have to buy her own textbooks. To afford them, she began working during the summer following her junior year in high school. She is a super saver. She put away about 80 percent of her earnings to pay for her books and personal expenses.

We did not allow Olivia to work during her freshman year of college, to ease her transition. But by her sophomore year, she got a part-time job at an on-campus day care center. She has had paid internships throughout college.

I should add that we had told our daughter back when she was in middle school that she could apply to any college she wanted with just one caveat: There would be no loans.

We managed her expectations throughout the college-selection process. She would have lived at home or started at our local community college if our savings came up short.

Maryland wasn’t her first school choice. But she ended up loving it, and all the more because when she walks across the stage next month to get her diploma, she won’t have the weight of debt on her shoulders. And neither will we.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: SingletaryM