Saving for retirement and a child’s college education – at the same time.

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As we transition out of summer and into autumn, the back-to-school buzz is often a sober reminder of the daunting task of figuring out how to pay for a child’s college education while also continuing to plan for your own retirement.  It is seldom easy to achieve a balance between planning for each of these two major life goals.  Unfortunately, some investors decide to concentrate on one, while neglecting the other.  Most often, I see investors sacrificing their own retirement, with noble intentions of putting their children’s financial needs ahead of their own.  

It may be tempting to put retirement planning on the back burner, especially given the ever-increasing costs of a college education within your present income. Yet it's imperative that you work hard to save for both at the same time. To postpone saving for your retirement might mean missing out on years of tax-deferred growth and playing a near-impossible game of catch-up. To accomplish both goals, you may be forced to compromise.

The first step is to thoroughly examine your funding needs for both college and retirement. On the retirement side, remember to include the projected value of any employer pension plans, estimated Social Security benefits, and changes to your expenses – for example, you might plan to spend more on health care, but you will no longer be saving into your 401k at work.  This evaluation may prompt you to examine some deeply held beliefs about your financial goals. For example, is it important that you travel regularly in retirement, or is it more important that your child attend a prestigious college?  If you discover that you can't afford to save for both goals, the second step is to consider some compromises:

  • Defer your retirement and work longer.
  • Reduce your standard of living, now or in retirement.
  • Increase your family income by seeking a better paying position in your present career, getting a second job, or having a previously stay-at-home spouse join the work force.
  • Seek out a more aggressive investment plan (but beware of the risks).
  • Expect your child to contribute to college, which some parents may find it difficult to accept.  However, the majority of college students finance a portion of their education with student loans. Many students also work during high school and college to save money for tuition.
  • Investigate less expensive colleges. You may find that some less expensive state universities have more to offer in certain programs than their pricey private counterparts.
  • Consider other ways to reduce the cost of college, including online learning, accelerated degree programs, starting off at community college, joining the military, or searching for college scholarships.

The third step is to re-evaluate your plan from time to time as your circumstances and wishes change. Remember, the important thing is to earmark a portion of your present income for both goals.