Should you focus on saving for your kid’s college education, or your retirement? Can’t you do both?
Many retirement experts tell parents, especially older ones approaching retirement, to not go into debt for a child’s college education if that means sacrificing saving for retirement. Let your kid sink or swim, but whatever you do, save yourself.
That can sound terrible to many moms and dads, and you may naturally wonder if retirement experts are monsters. But the rationale for that thinking often goes like this: “If you are diverting money from your retirement plan to help a child pay for college, these are dollars that will not be made up, ever. It doesn’t matter if you’re 45 or 65, those monies will never be available for your own retirement,” said Michael Gerstman, CEO of Gerstman Financial Group in Dallas.
“Your child can fund an education through loans, but you can’t fund a retirement through loans,” he added.
Still, because this involves your children, you can make a lot of powerful arguments that you should just shove all of the financial advice aside and do everything you can to pay for your kids’ college ― even if it hurts your retirement. Besides, you may rationalize, mostly facetiously, that if you help your children become well-heeled members of society, maybe someday they’ll make sure you get into a decent nursing home. Maybe one with massage therapists, a gym and dependable Wi-Fi.
Dennis Shirshikov has a thought about that. He’s a financial analyst with the website FitSmallBusiness.com and an adjunct professor of economics at the City University of New York. He points out that if you don’t save enough for your retirement, and you end up relying on your kids to help you get by, “this puts a larger financial burden on them than a school loan would.”
Sigh. It’s a good point. None of this is easy, and everybody is going to feel differently about what their savings priorities should be. But if you are wrestling with the question “Do I focus on my retirement or my kids’ college?” you can consider these strategies.
If you aren’t taking out parent PLUS loans, it doesn’t mean you can’t help your kids pay off their own student loans.
So maybe the plan is that your kid takes out all the loans for college. You don’t. But if you feel guilty about that, keep this in mind: “Parents can sometimes help with monthly payments rather than borrowing the money,” said Brie Sodano, a Watertown, Connecticut-based financial advisor and founder of the company From Sheep to Shark.
In other words, if things aren’t dire on your end, and you can help out your kid out with their student loans ― maybe until he or she gets a decent job ― then do that. If you win the lottery, pay them all off. But by not locking yourself down with a bunch of loans, you’ll have the freedom to help your kid out if you can and focus on saving for your retirement if that’s what you have to do.
Still, Sodano said that you may find yourself in a position where you do feel like you have to take out loans ― or at least co-sign for them.
“The expert advice to save for retirement first is fine, but the real trouble happens when the kids can’t get the student loans without the parent,” she said. “This puts the parents in between a rock and a hard place. Parent PLUS loans and co-signed private loans can easily derail a retirement plan.”
And if you choose not to take out a PLUS loan or co-sign a loan with your kid, it may mean he or she will need to choose a different, cheaper school.
“This can be heartbreaking for both the kids and the parents,” Sodano said.
You can help your child’s finances in other ways, too.
Gerstman said that if you can’t or don’t save for your kid’s college or take out loans, there are still a lot of things that you can to make your child’s financial life easier throughout and after college.
“You could keep a college student on your cell phone plan, your health insurance and you can give them a monthly stipend for expenses,” he said. “You can also pass down your old vehicle to them and cover their car insurance. Gift cards to your child’s local supermarket or shopping center is always appreciated. The same can be said for gas gift cards. You could also consider helping them with books, as that may be a more manageable expense for you.”
But he suggests letting your child pay tuition and room and board through loans.
“If you want to help, take care of the wants, and let loans take care of the needs,” Gerstman said.
Advise your college kid on what type of loans to take out.
So maybe you aren’t going to pay for your college kid’s tuition. You can still be a big help by researching loans and helping your son or daughter pick the smartest ones, the ones that aren’t complete debt traps — and help them avoid going too deep in debt. For instance, Sodano suggests that your student doesn’t borrow more than the first-year salary for his or her desired job.
“This helps to keep the loans manageable,” she said. She offered the example of a college student studying to be a teacher. A first-year teacher in Connecticut, she said, will earn from about $38,000 to $45,000 a year. So she would advise a student in that situation to keep their loans to no more than $45,000.
Save for both purposes — but make college cheaper.
So maybe you are going to do both. You’re going to take out loans, if you have to. You’re diverting money to your kids’ 529s. And, yes, you’re socking away money ― maybe not enough, but it’s something ― for your own retirement.
You can at least do everything possible to make your child’s college expenses cheaper ― and try to enlist your kid’s help.
Eric Sztanyo is a Realtor at Keller Williams in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the founder of We Buy NKY Houses, a cash home buying company. He says he’s “haunted” by the question of whether he should focus on paying for retirement or his kids’ college, especially since he is self-employed. He’s only 37, but he and his wife have four children.
And he’s already thinking of ways he might bring down the cost of college for them.
“In our school district, high school students can take college courses and if you do it right, get up to two years of college knocked out even before you start paying tuition. You have to have a well-disciplined college kid, but this potentially could cut your college bill in half,” Sztanyo said.
Sztanyo’s four kids are currently 1, 3, 6, and 8 years old, so it remains to be seen how his strategy works out for him. But if some of his kids aren’t knocking their grades out of the park, they could spend the first two years of their college education in community college.
“One option that many more people are exercising today is to attend much less expensive community colleges for two years and then transfer those credits to a four-year college to earn the degree. The degree comes from the four-year college and is the same degree earned by someone attending the four-year college for the full four years,” said Robert Johnson, a finance professor at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Johnson feels that saving for your retirement should always triumph if you have to choose between your golden years or your kid’s college days, but he is sympathetic to parents who struggle with that.
“The college education is more tangible than the need for retirement savings in many people’s minds,” he says. “Besides, they hypothesize that they can simply work longer if they haven’t accumulated enough funds by the age at which they plan to retire.”
Unfortunately, he adds, it doesn’t always work out that way. “One of the more interesting findings of a recent Gallup poll is that people plan to retire at age 66 and are actually forced to retire early at age 62 due to a plethora of reasons, primarily health considerations ― their own and those of their loved ones,” Johnson said.
Here’s the bottom line.
If you are going to pay for your child’s college, and it’s going to impact what you can save for retirement, you and your kid should be doing everything you can to lower the cost of college. Obviously, finding scholarships and grants will help shave off money, although it’s always far easier to imagine doing that than actually finding enough to subtract a significant amount. Claiming college tax credits and deductions may help offset some of the money you shell out for your kid’s college. And your child may be able to pay for room and board the last couple years by taking a job as a resident advisor in the dorm.
In other words, if you’re going to do this, you need to be creative, it’ll need to be a parent-kid team effort, and you’re both going to have to become schooled on how to pay for college as cheaply as possible. And hope that it all pays off when your kids pick out your nursing home.