Saving for Retirement vs. College: The One Rule to Remember

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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jonnyjjohnson1

Do not save money for college because you will not be be able to get government grants and if you save money for retirement the government will end up getting it. So my advice live like to day is the last day of your life. (( Don't worry be happy ))

September 14 2010 at 8:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jonnyjjohnson1's comment
evd10

The only problem is that for some reason lot of people who follow this advice end being worried and unhappy. This philosophy usually works best when thre is a continuous supply of adequate income.

September 14 2010 at 8:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
vaughpa

My college tuition, room and board was the greatest gift my parents every gave me. Just as their parents did for them not long after the Great Depression. They all saved and sacrificed in order for us to get that Bachelors and the opportunity for greater prosperity. But they also saved and invested for their own retirement, too. In our family, it's not a choice of one or the other. Maybe if people sacrifice and quit buying "things" and "stuff" we really don't need, we could save and pay for both. Also, people should go to a college they can afford. There are lots of way to make it work and it doesn't involve going into debt (Junior College for first 2 years, state colleges rather than private, scholarships, etc.).

September 14 2010 at 4:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vaughpa's comment
evd10

There's just too much common sense in your post. How many people do you think have much common sense? After seeing the results in the last couple of the the borowing and spending binge I'd guess not tha many.

September 14 2010 at 8:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gumby

Parents,,, it is time to save for your children's retiremnent ..

September 14 2010 at 4:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
evd10

I think that the picture for many people will be far worse than you painted it. A lot of parents who are now broke because they spent their money educating Junior or Sis will find out that their not really welcome at Junior's or Sis's at all. Then there is another group who is going to find out that they are going to be expected to support Junior or Sis ubtil Junior or Sis are 40 or 50, because they can't get a job earning more than $10. with their pricey but worthless degree.

September 14 2010 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply