Many parents in the Garden State want their kids to receive a college education. But if you don't want them burdened with student loan debt for decades after graduation, where's all that money coming from?

As new figures show a default rate of more than 9% among New Jersey borrowers, a savings expert in Princeton is warning parents to get a plan going yesterday. Ideally, money is being put aside once the baby is brought into the world.

"Start. Don't get intimidated by the numbers," said Ken Van Leeuwen, managing director and founder of Van Leeuwen & Company.

Financial advisors like him, Van Leeuwen added, aren't needed to take this step. NJBest, the state's 529 college savings plan, requires a few steps to get going, and can start building with as little as a $25 monthly contribution, he said.

"What we've seen through the years is that $25 a month for most parents, even if they have a couple kids ... is usually very doable from a savings perspective," he said. "Put it in part of your household budget and make that a non-negotiable (item). As we know, the years go by quickly, and then you turn around and there's nothing there."

The students themselves can be part of the savings equation as well, he added, and should be part of the overall discussion about higher education. Perhaps their skills or desires would be best suited for a non-college route, or lots of money can be saved by initially attending community college and then transferring for a bachelor's degree, he said.

"Everybody wants the best for their children, but you have to be a realist too," Van Leeuwen said.

According to a LendEDU analysis of Department of Education data, released in October, nearly 8,000 borrowers in New Jersey were in default in 2016 — a default rate of 9.5%. The national rate was 10.10%.

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