If your child is 12 years old...
The situation ahead: You only have six years to save for your child's college education. It isn't too late, even if your child is a bit older than 12, but the older he or she gets, "the advantage of tax-deferred growth in these savings is diminished," says Rick Scott, an associate professor of finance at Saint Leo University's Donald R. Tapia School of Business in Saint Leo, Fla.
What you should be doing right now: Hopefully you've been putting money into a 529 plan for some time now. If so, keep doing it.
"If you haven't, set up an automatic withdrawal from your checking account every month," Polimeni suggests. "After a couple pay periods, you sort of won't feel its absence any longer."
More to consider: There are fees associated with 529s, like the program management fee, which takes less than 1 percent of the savings each year. You could instead opt to put money into a custodial account reserved in your child's name, but those are subject to taxes, and when your kid comes of age, he or she could technically use it for whatever he or she wants – like buying a motorcycle.
If your child is 18...
The situation ahead: It's almost time, and you've saved ... virtually nothing. Don't beat yourself up. That won't help your child, and life is expensive and difficult; not everyone can put money away. Start researching loans and scholarships.
[Read: 10 Financial Tips for College Grads.]
What you should be doing right now: As for loans, you can complete a free application for federal student aid at www.fafsa.ed.gov, and if the university requires it, a College Scholarship Service financial aid profile application. Both give lenders information to determine your eligibility for financial aid.
"Limit your scholarships applications to those that you have the best chance at," Michaelsen says. "Often, those are state and regional ones. Focus your search on organizations, churches and groups that you have a personal involvement or connection. Don't forget to ask employers about scholarships."
Michaelsen also suggests asking the college about payment plans, which are often interest-free.
More to consider: When an educational institution determines your financial aid based on your needs, your assets aren't created equal, Scott points out. He says if you have $300,000 worth of stocks, bonds or CDs, which perhaps you were planning on using for retirement, you are going to have a tougher time getting money. But if that same $300,000 has been parked in an actual retirement account, or you have $300,000 in home equity, that's another story; the money won't be used against you when determining need-based financial aid.
[See: 50 Smart Money Moves.]
"The reasoning here is that a parent should not have to sell their home, take a second mortgage or plunder their own retirement account to pay for college," Scott says.
That is logical, but much of the way money is allocated to college students isn't. Of course, one wouldn't want to punish a penniless high school student who aspires to go to college but doesn't have parents who support that goal. But as Scott says, "We have a financial aid system that punishes those that save for their child's college and rewards those that do not. Colleges take into account how much you've saved for college when they are awarding need-based financial aid and loans. If you save more, you get less."