Just take the middle-aged couple facing a financial double-whammy, with few dollars saved to put their children through college and little if any money banked for retirement.
For financial planners, it is an increasingly common scenario, with college maybe the only thing Americans do as bad a job of saving for as retirement.
More than 35% of parents have either saved nothing for college or do not plan to, according to Sallie Mae's annual report, "How America Saves for College."
For those that did stash money away for the children's college tuition, the average savings was $18,000 -- enough for three months at your typical private college.
"I see this dilemma in nearly 75% of my clients which are mainly families with two or more children," says Paul Fenner, president and founder of Tamma Capital in the Detroit area and a certified financial planner or CFP. "The pressure to balance multiple financial priorities such as savings for retirement, college, and keeping up with everyday cost of living puts a tremendous burden on these families."
And as they help clients navigate these dueling financial demands, planners are offering a message some parents may find harsh: Save for your own retirement first and then worry about your kids, even at the expense of forcing them to take out student loans.
"You can borrow for college but you can't borrow for retirement," says Darin Shebesta, a vice president, wealth advisor and CFP at Jackson/Roskelley Wealth Advisors in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Facing up to financial realities
Jamie Bosse, a CFP at Aspyre Wealth Partners in Overland Park, Kansas, notes students have a range of options to finance college, including "student loans, work study, grants, part-time jobs, taking online courses, etc."
But parents don't have the luxury of multiple options when it comes to paying for retirement.
"The focus should be on making sure they have a secure retirement first," Bosse notes. "Many people tend to get tunnel vision and stop thinking long-term when tuition bills come up."
Parents need to be upfront about what they can afford while teaching their children to evaluate college as a potential investment, says Mary Ballin, a CFP at the Walnut Creek, California, office of Private Ocean, a wealth management firm.
That can mean talking with your children about whether it makes sense to spend $50,000 or $60,000 in tuition at a private college if the degree will have only a minimally better payoff compared to the local state university or college.
Noting her own experience working with her college-bound daughter, Ballin advises hiring a college advisor in addition to teaming up with a financial planner.
"I am all for pursuing a passion, but our children need to be realistic when it comes to budgetary constraints, and parents need to be realistic about what is affordable without derailing their own future," she says.
One way of providing a financial boost for your child's college dreams without having to drain your retirement accounts is to hire an ACT/SAT tutor while they are still in high school, notes Robert David Stoll, a CFP and a CFA at Honey Lake Advisors in Deer Park, Ill.
"Turning a B student into an A student can open the door to merit scholarships, reducing the cost of college," Stoll says.
Focusing on saving for retirement will also help their children in the long-run, potentially mitigating hard choices when parents eventually need additional health care services and supports but don't have the money saved to pay for them.
"Elder care is expensive, and adult children often face an unenviable choice between cost and quality of care for their parents," Stoll notes. "Parents can honor their children by being financially prepared for retirement."
Still, Eric Roberge, a CFP and founder of Beyond Your Hammock in Boston, acknowledges this can be a tough issue for parents.
One thing Roberge says he has found helps is developing a college financing plan that looks at all the potential options on the table, from scholarships and grants to student loans and even gifts from other family members.
"By identifying all the ways to pay for college, parents usually feel a little better about contributing less to college savings and MORE to their own retirement savings," Roberge says.
Not that it always a bad thing for children to help finance their own college education, observes Kristin McFarland, a CFP at Darrow Wealth Management in Boston.
"While most parents would hate to see their children saddled with debt, it isn't a bad thing for college students to have some skin in the game," McFarland says.