How am I going to save enough to pay for college for my three young kids? That's the first question that I asked Carol Stack, co-author of the book "The Financial Aid Handbook: Getting the Education You Want for the Price You Can Afford."

Her answer? "If you're normal people, I don't think it's possible to save to cover it," she said.

I appreciated her honesty. With college tuition increases outpacing inflation for the past decade, most average families are worried about how to send their kids to college without incurring crippling debt.

Stack, who was in charge of admissions at both Augsburg College and Macalester College before becoming a college consultant with Hardwick Day in Bloomington, decided to write the book with her fellow consultant Ruth Vedvik, because she thinks college financing is perceived by families to be far more mysterious than it actually is.

"They think it's some secretive cabal with rocket science-like analyses and all these acronyms and that it's very, very difficult to understand. And that's not true," she said. So what are the top take-aways from her book?

Embrace the $8k challenge. Parents were always asking her for a guideline for how much student loan debt to take out. So Stack factored in the four-year, $31,000 federal student loan limit for an undergraduate and the roughly $33,000 average starting salary for liberal arts graduates and came up with the guideline to borrow no more than $32,000 for a bachelor's degree. That's total, not per year.

Now if you're pursuing a slam-dunk career that would pay far more than $32,000 to start, then it might be OK to borrow more. In that case, Stack recommends that total student debt should be equal to or less than your first year's salary.

This guideline was influenced by numerous conversations with students who can't buy homes, save for retirement or start families because their student loan payments are too high.

"Don't let this student loan debt become so big that it de facto makes all the decisions about your adult life," she said.

Reconsider the reach school. All students have a "reach" school -- the college they would love to attend but aren't sure their grades or test scores are good enough. The common reach school mentality is that if you get into Harvard, you go. Stack says that's not always a good idea. She explains in the book that colleges will give a disproportionate amount of aid to the stellar students they're trying to attract, hoping the students who barely got in will scramble to foot the entire bill. "If the reach school involves unreasonable kinds of financial decision-making, don't go there. Instead, look at a school that's reaching for you," she said.

How do you know if a school will really want you? Test scores and grade-point average are starting points, but reading college materials for key words that reflect your own values is also important, Stack said. For example, if you are a student who did a ton of volunteering, chances are a college that talks about the importance of community involvement will be a good match for both the school and the student.

Consider your lifestyle. With the cost of college and the value of a college degree persistently in the news, she's noticed a growing chorus of parents who say they will only go so far to help pay for college. Many families simply can't afford to contribute much to their kid's education. But she also comes across families who prioritize buying a boat or redoing the kitchen over paying for school. "There are a lot of people out there who are willing to pay for stuff, but think college ought to be free," she said.

Discuss your financial aid package. What if your aid package is underwhelming? First, double-check to make sure the family financial figures you provided are accurate, because it's easy to transpose numbers on the application.

If your numbers are sound, and you really want to go to that school, Stack suggests the incoming freshman make a call, or even better, a face-to-face appointment with a financial aid officer, "and say 'This is who I am, this is where I really want to be at school, this is how this aid package comes up a little short and I'm hoping maybe you can help me find a way to make it possible for me to invest in a Macalester education," she said, using her alma mater as an example.

Evaluate your entire financial life. The paying-for-college days are behind Stack, but if she were me, with a dozen years of future college costs, what would she do to prepare? First, she'd focus on retirement, not college. "There's a point in our lives where if we can't take care of ourselves we can't take care of our kids," she explained.

Daily living expenses come next. She recommends keeping payments on mortgages and cars low and making sure everyone's covered by health insurance and eating healthy food. Only then would she start saving for college, in the parent's name for flexibility's sake, either in a plan designated for college such as a 529 plan, or a plain old savings account. After the market swerves of recent weeks, be sure your 529 plan is out of stocks by the time your kid reaches high school.

Stack recommends that anyone curious about their expected family contribution for college tuition -- even if your kid's still in diapers -- should check out the FAFSA4Caster at The earlier you start the family conversation about paying for college, the better.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or Twitter: @Kara_McGuire