Editors' pick: Originally published Sept. 8.
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It's a dilemma that parents have had for years, but it has only gotten even more problematic in the age of the 401(k).
And that is, with skyrocketing tuition on one hand and with all of us living longer on the other, how can we possibly afford to save for both retirement and our kids' college costs at the same time?
It's not a new problem. But our parents had employer-provided pensions, which probably made it easier to save for their children's education. These days, in the era of the 401(k), the burden of saving for retirement has shifted to the workers, leaving a tough choice for many parents.
According to a T. Rowe Price survey, 53% of parents polled say they would prefer to use their retirement savings to pay tuition rather than let their children take out loans. Also, 49% said they would be willing to retire later if that's what it takes to pay their children's college tuition.
"Here's what I recommend," says financial planner Nick Abrams, at AJW Financial in Columbia, Md. "We'll go through meeting with a client. Of course every client wants to pay for all of their children's college tuition. I say, this is the number if you want to pay 100% of junior's tuition. This is how much you need to save. There is sticker shock."
Abrams says he then offers a more realistic approach to saving. He asks clients whether, for example, they'd like to pay 100% or 50% of the tuition cost or if they have a particular number in mind -- say, $50,000 or $100,000 -- they'd like to save.
"They come back and say, 'Nick, we'll do half,' or 'I want to do $100,000 -- anything else they are on their own.'" Abrams says.
Bill Van Sant, CFP, senior vice president and managing director at Girard Partners, says ultimately, it's a household decision.
"I've seen both sides," he says. "I've had clients who will sacrifice their own retirement and eat cat food to make sure their kids go to best college. I don't think parents should sacrifice their retirement. People are living longer, and their assets are not going to last."
Financial planners say many parents are late even thinking about college for their kids. Then, it's a matter of catching up. And that can lead to a crisis.
"A lot of is individuals who are planning for their children's education, I see them preparing for their education late," says Aaron Smith, a financial planner and president of A.W. Smith Financial Group in Glen Allen, Va. "Many times they come in sit down, and that kid is about to enter high school.
"Another thing we see is the parents don't know the true cost of college education as it relates not only to tuition, but room and board and even transportation," he says.
Still, if parents waited, all hope is not lost.
"What we do is inform those parents that all is not lost," Smith says, "Especially in earlier years, if they come in and want to talk about education going into high school year, we inform them that we need to be realistic. You have to make a decision whether you want that kid to go to a four-year school, in-state school or out-of-state school, which comes with higher costs."
Smith also says it's intelligent to investigate community colleges with programs tied to four-year colleges and universities.
"You can go to schools for little cost for two years, then you are automatically accepted in any of the public universities in that state," he says. "It also allows parents to cut down on cost."
Abrams says parents are usually relieved after he pushes them to look at costs and see how much they can realistically afford to pay. He says he recently did a financial plan in which the parents decided on paying half of their child's college tuition.
"It was a relief," he says. "They had funds left over to save for their retirement, which as a going concern for them as well. I'm a fan of starting early, ten years before one gets to college."
Van Sant says parents need to start planning earlier and consider 529 plans.
"A 529 is one of most flexible investment solutions for anyone looking to go to college," he says. "It can receive contributions from parents and grandparents, and others can contribute. It can be used for any kind of four-year or two-year school. If child does not go to college or gets scholarship, you can change the name to another of your children. If none of children have used the dollars, you can use it for yourself, or if you cash it in and only 10% penalty."
"For college education, parents have to have a realistic conversation with their children," Abrams says. "College is very expensive. We've got to look at different ways of going about it. If you can't save, look for alternatives, such as a state school or two years at a community college. The way prices are going now, it's difference. Costs are getting astronomical now."