Raleigh, N.C. — Thousands of parents are struggling to pay bills and barely able to make the mortgage, let alone think about putting away money for their children's future – at least in this recession.
But parents need to know about programs that can help them build college savings accounts.
Banks, like Bank of America and Fidelity Bank, for example, have offers, much like frequent-flier programs, that allow cardholders to save for their child's education while they shop.
With the UPROMISE card from Sallie Mae and Bank of America, 1 percent of every eligible purchase goes toward a tax-free college investment account called a 529 plan.
Fidelity Bank has a similar American Express card that rebates 2 percent to the college fund every time it is used to make certain purchases.
Although the grants and rebates are not that big, starting early and being savvy about how to use the cards could mean earning thousands of dollars.
Since 2002, Jim Cappy has earned nearly $2,000 for his daughter Megan's education at North Carolina State University, where she is a junior accounting major.
"It's incremental, it's really small," Cappy said. "But it works for us."
Some colleges also pitch similar free-money offers.
Mount Olive College, for example, partners with a company called Sage Scholars, which offers Tuition Rewards for shopping at and doing business with Sage business partners.
But those rewards can only be redeemed at that college.
Other universities, such as Duke University and Wake Forest University, allow parents to invest money into an independent 529 program. In return, they get a .5 percent return on their investment, and parents are able to lock in at current tuition rates.
Again, that return is available only if a student goes to that school.