Life is full of choices. Should you watch Breaking Bad or Modern Family? Eat leftovers for dinner or order out? Exercise before work or after? Some choices, though, are much more significant. Here is one such financial dilemma for parents.
Should you save for retirement or college?
It’s the paramount financial conflict many parents face, especially as more couples start having children later in life. Should you save for college or retirement? The pressure is fierce on both sides.
Over the past 20 years, college costs have grown roughly 4% to 6% each year–generally double the rate of inflation and typical salary increases–with the price for four years at an average private college now hitting $192,876, and a whopping $262,917 at the most expensive private colleges.
Even public colleges, whose costs a generation ago could be covered mostly by student summer jobs and some parental scrimping, now total about $100,000 for four years (Source: College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2013 and assumed 5% annual college inflation). Many parents have more than one child, adding to the strain. Yet without a college degree, many jobs and career paths are off limits.
On the other side, the pressure to save for retirement is intense. Longer life expectancies, disappearing pensions, and the uncertainty of Social Security’s long-term fiscal health make it critical to build the biggest nest egg you can during your working years.
In order to maintain your current standard of living in retirement, a general guideline is to accumulate enough savings to replace 60% to 90% of your current income in retirement–a sum that could equal hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. And with retirements that can last 20 to 30 years or longer, it’s essential to factor in inflation, which can take a big bite out of your purchasing power and has averaged 2.5% per year over the past 20 years (Source: Consumer Price Index data published by the U.S. Department of Labor, 2013).
So with these two competing financial needs and often limited funds, what’s a parent to do?
The prevailing wisdom
Answer: retirement should win out. Saving for retirement should be something you do no matter what. It’s an investment in your future security when you’ll no longer be bringing home a paycheck, and it generally should take precedence over saving for your child’s college education.
It’s akin to putting on your own oxygen mask first, and then securing your child’s. Unless your retirement plan is to have your children be on the hook for taking care of you financially later in life, retirement funding should come first.
It’s unrealistic to expect parents to ignore college funding altogether, and that approach really isn’t smart anyway because regular contributions–even small ones–can add up over time. One possible solution is to figure out what you can afford to save each month and then split your savings, with a focus on retirement. So, for example, you might decide to allocate 85% of your savings to retirement and 15% to college, or 80/20 or 75/25, or whatever ratio works for you.
Although saving for retirement should take priority, setting aside even a small amount for college can help. For example, parents of a preschooler who save $100 per month for 15 years would have $24,609, assuming an average 4% return. Saving $200 per month in the same scenario would net $49,218.*
These aren’t staggering numbers, but you might be able to add to your savings over the years, and if nothing else, think of this sum as a down payment–many parents don’t save the full amount before college. Rather, they try to save as much as they can, then look for other ways to help pay the bills at college time. Like what?
Loans, for one. Borrowing excessively isn’t prudent, but the federal government allows undergraduate students to borrow up to $27,000 in Stafford Loans over four years–a relatively reasonable amount–and these loans come with an income-based repayment option down the road.
In addition, your child can apply for merit scholarships at the colleges he or she is applying to, and may be eligible for need-based college grants. And there are other ways to lower costs–like attending State U over Private U, living at home, graduating in three years instead of four, earning credits through MOOCs (massive open online courses), working during college, or maybe not attending college right away or even at all.
In fact, last summer, a senior vice president at Google responsible for hiring practices at the company noted that 14% of some teams included people who never went to college, but who nevertheless possessed the problem solving, leadership, intellectual humility, and creative skills Google is looking for (“In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal,” New York Times, June 19, 2013). One more reason to put a check in the retirement column.