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This family faced a $1 million college tab to educate four kids

Nearly 20 years ago, Frank and Debbie Astorino prepared to welcome three children into the world, younger siblings to their adopted 3-year-old daughter, Remy.

As if the prospect of going from one child to four weren't daunting enough, the North Caldwell, New Jersey, couple said they were apprehensive about the cost of raising all four kids and putting them through college.

While doctors prepared Debbie to deliver the triplets, Frank sat outside the operating room, getting his mind around the family's new reality: How much will higher education cost for four children?

Frank, a financial planner and president of The Astorino Financial Group in Fairfield, New Jersey, figured out he and his wife had less than 18 years to hit a seven-figure goal to put the kids through school.

"He told me it was a million dollars by the end, for all four of them," said Debbie.

Hard decisions

The arrival of Kevin, Kerri and Sheri shook up the Astorino household. The triplets weren't full term when they were born, and their lungs were underdeveloped. They weighed 2.8 pounds to 3.9 pounds.

Debbie, a full-time teacher until the birth, remained at home to be with the children. It was one of many sacrifices the family made in order to ensure the kids' health and well-being.

Debbie’s triplets
Source: Debbie Astorino
Debbie’s triplets

"She was very dedicated to making sure they focused on school while I concentrated on making the funds to support them," said Frank.

To conserve cash — and put money toward the kids' higher education — the Astorinos took advantage of local resources available to them, including affordable town camps and swimming lessons at the community pool.

The children went to public high schools, and the family skimped on luxuries.

"We weren't deprived by any means, but we lived in a modest house," Frank said.

At one point, the family sold some property. "There was a time I owned more real estate for investment purposes, and we gave it up, including a house down the shore," said Frank.

Creating a strategy

The greatest resource the Astorinos had was time. Frank designed a comprehensive financial plan, and the execution took place over the course of years.

For instance, each child had a tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan and an account under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act.

A 529 plan allows savings to grow tax free, and proceeds can go toward educational expenses free of taxes. An UTMA account allows children to receive financial gifts free of gift taxes, up to a certain limit.

Debbie and Frank Astorino with all four of their kids.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Debbie and Frank Astorino with all four of their kids.

Once the children were old enough to start working at Frank's firm, the family made sure the kids' earnings went toward a Roth IRA.

Anything over the maximum that they could contribute (the most you can put in a Roth IRA in 2017 is $5,500, plus $1,000 if you're over 50) went toward the 529 plans.

Because the kids didn't earn much when they were working for their father, they didn't have to pay much in the way of income taxes when they put money into the Roth.

Kerri, Kevin and Sherri Astorino. Their parents used a combination of 529 plans and trust accounts to pay for college.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Kerri, Kevin and Sherri Astorino. Their parents used a combination of 529 plans and trust accounts to pay for college.

The family also had a credit card with Fidelity that earned rewards to be deposited in the savings plan.

"Two percent of what we spent for our household would go toward the 529," said Frank. "Over time, that credit card paid for a lot of the first year [of Remy's college education]."

The college savings plan went hand-in-hand with Frank's retirement savings goals to ensure he and his wife won't be a burden on their children in the future. He established a 401(k) profit-sharing plan, a defined benefit plan and a deferred compensation plan.

"We weren't deprived by any means, but we lived in a modest house." -Frank Astorino, president, The Astorino Financial Group

Eventually, Debbie went to work for Frank's firm, so she has a retirement plan set up there.

"There is sacrifice, but the reward is that you educate your kids and you won't depend on them in old age," Frank said.

Investing in themselves

The kids also kicked in their own funding for college.

Remy earned a $24,000 scholarship at Fairleigh Dickinson University, while Kevin will receive $70,000 in scholarships from Seton Hall University.

Kerri is getting a lower-cost education at The College of New Jersey for $15,000 a year. Meanwhile, the family will pay full price for Sheri's schooling at Boston College, Frank's alma mater.

All four children have some skin in the game: Each child has taken out $20,000 in Stafford loans.

"Senior year, when we had established the funds needed for college, we surprised them with a big trip to Miami," said Debbie. "Frank made a toast to thank them for all their hard work. We wanted a future for them, and that was the goal."

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