One of the hardest financial decisions parents have to make is this: How much can we afford to contribute toward our children's educational expenses, and at what point can we say, "Sorry, but our own financial situation is more important?"

Americans are pretty evenly split on the issue of helping their kids pay for college versus saving for retirement. And let's be honest: In these tough times, most people will at best only really be able to do one of the two well.

Here's the rule of thumb I have for parents when it comes to making this decision. It's called "The Airplane Rule": Please make sure that your own oxygen mask is secured and fastened before assisting your child.

If you really want to help your child, one of the best things you can do is make sure that you won't be a burden during your golden years. As much as they love you, your son and future daughter-in-law would probably prefer that you not crash on their couch because you took out a HELOC (home equity line of credit) to pay for his education and then couldn't afford to make the payments.

Of course, you still want to help your kid, and that's great. Here's how you can do it: Restrict your financial support of your kid's educational expenses to sacrifices in the present, rather than pledges to a lender or depleted retirement account that you will make sacrifices in the future.

As I've shown before, seemingly minor sacrifices like driving a car an extra year instead of upgrading, skipping a vacation, or eating out one less time per week can actually add up to a pretty substantial share of the cost of college.

I know you want to help your kids. But in the long run, sacrificing your own financial well-being will only result in pain for both parent and child.

Zac Bissonnette's Debt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parents was called "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process" by The Washington Post.

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