Retirement or College Savings, which Takes Priority?

There’s a parental continuum when it comes to paying for college. On one end is “The kids can pay for their own college” and on the other end is “we will take out all the loans and pay them all back so precious junior does not have any student loans.”

Both are far too extreme for me personally and as a financial planner, but here’s one thing to think about as you find your place on the paying-for-college continuum: Retirement is an inevitability, no matter what you do (yes, even poets), there will come a day when you cannot physically or mentally do it anymore (assuming a person gets to retirement age…).

There’s no backstop. Sure, there’s social security and yes, it helps, but you have to save to make sure you can survive financially and live independently when you are no longer working. Notice, I did not mention travelling the world or yachts. You have to save enough to survive and then we can discuss living well.

There is NO CHOICE between retirement and college savings. There is ONLY retirement. The choice comes when you have adequately saved enough for retirement to “survive” as mentioned in the paragraph above. The CHOICE: do you want to have a BETTER retirement or send junior to college. That’s the ONLY choice regarding these two topics. Basic retirement comes FIRST. Period.

Because this is choice between LEVELS of retirement lifestyle and paying for college, it is a middle and upper middle class issue. Generally, families in this group do not qualify for financial aid, and they have nice lifestyles that would be hard to continue in retirement without saving a lot. You have to decide how important the level of your retirement lifestyle is compared to helping junior pay for college.

Here are my basic guidelines for making the choice between a grander lifestyle in retirement and paying for college:

  1. Contribute 15% pretax pay to your retirement plan, PERIOD. This will ensure you have saved enough for BASIC retirement needs (or max your retirement contribution, whichever comes first). Contributing enough to get your employer match is necessary, but not sufficient. Most matches are up to 5% of earnings and that spells CAT FOOD in retirement, if that’s all you save.
  2. Once you’ve hit 15% pretax for retirement, you should contribute up to your tax deduction limit, at least, in your 529 plan annually. Most states have an amount up to which you can deduct your 529 contribution on your state return (usually you have to be in YOUR state’s program, too).
  3. Save more in your 529 plan each year up to the amount that allows you to have about half of a private school tuition saved upon junior’s entering college. Remember, you can only contribute up to $14k/year per parent to avoid hitting the gift tax system.
  4. If you still have funds to save after that, return to your retirement plan and make sure you’re maxing out your contribution in whatever retirement plan you have available. Save in a non-qualified account (e.g. brokerage account, money market, second property, other assets, etc.) if you are already maxing your retirement plan.
  5. Remember, the best way to pay for college is out of current earnings (no fees, no inflation, no market risk), but that’s hard to do for most people. However, paying half of a private college while junior is in college is a little more achievable for most middle and upper middle class families, which is why a 529 savings goal of HALF of juniors college tuition is a great start and easier to achieve for most families. You can save more if you have it, but you want to be careful that you do not over save for private college and junior goes to State.

Saving is a lifestyle choice. Not spending everything earn is a lifestyle. Deciding what to save for is a wonderful problem to have. Be savvy about the future. Basic retirement is the first priority.