Finding balance between retirement savings and college savings represents a challenge most families need help managing. If you feel overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Consider some eye-opening statistics from Roger Michaud’s recent article “Financing Education is a Retirement Issue “

  • When it comes to financing a college education, 21% of parents would delay their retirement and 23% would withdraw money from their retirement account to help fund college
  • 94% of parents believe college savings will impact their ability to save for retirement
  • 56% of parents with children in the home are currently saving for retirement

The struggle is real, especially when parents would actually withdraw from their retirement savings to help fund college. Early withdrawals face taxes plus potentially a 10% early withdrawal penalty making it less of a financial plan and more of a knee-jerk reaction.

find your balance photo-1444312645910-ffa973656eba
Find Your Balance

Why? Let’s consider the circumstances. Retirement is most often cited as a goal for long-term savings, but the rise in college costs has emerged as a financial challenge as well. Retirement planning extends beyond the typical 18 years leading up to college attendance, and parents may have started saving for retirement before they got married and had kids, giving them a head-start. This creates a false sense of security where a parent may simply feel comfortable pulling money for retirement to help fund their child’s college dreams, but this is unsustainable. Here’s how families successfully manage both.

Start with retirement savings: Securing your long-term financial goals puts you in best position to help your children over time without unnecessary financial sacrifice. Every dollar counts, and the tax benefits provided by Traditional and Roth IRA’s, 401(k) and 403(b) really help long term savers. While you cannot predict the future of your child’s academic plans, you do know and understand your own future financial needs better than anyone else. Once you’ve mastered your retirement plan you can more confidently pivot the remaining income towards college savings.

Play the long game with college savings: Take a big picture perspective, developing your patience and putting value on consistency. This is a relaxing exercise far removed from an overly busy day-to-day life, so enjoy it and you’ll thank yourself many years down the road. Stay motivated by reviewing savings progress as consistently as you would review your child’s report cards every semester / quarter. You’ll notice that as the savings grow, your child’s academic progress will help you zero in on admissions criteria for various colleges, further motivating you to stay the course. Maintain active engagement by using simple online tools like Invite Education’s Passport for Success that outlines college savings and academic planning all on one platform.

Enfranchise your child: Help your child develop their role as an active saver for college. During the key early years, its expected parents and perhaps relatives will make the lion’s share of deposits in college savings accounts. Once the child begins some part time work, have a portion of those earnings added to the college savings account to help them get involved. This helps develop an all-important habit of saving, a key lesson often overlooked but sorely needed for financial literacy education.

Forecast Financial Aid: Savings are accounted for as part of financial aid eligibility calculations, but the way the money is saved makes an impact. For example, cash in a checking account in the student’s name can weigh against financial aid eligibility by as much as 20% of full value on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid! There’s a better way. If you’re worried about financial aid eligibility, just remember;

  • It’s cheaper to save long term than to borrow and pay back loans later
  • On the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) money saved in a 529 plan owned by the parent is weighed against financial aid eligibility at 5.64% of full value, a great reduction from cash found in a checking account.

In other words, college savers are not punished for their efforts. It’s the income from work declared on the FAFSA that can reduce financial aid eligibility more dramatically. Always use a financial aid estimator to forecast and plan ahead, but you may quickly determine that your income would remove eligibility for Pell or State based grants. This reinforces the need for college savings with an early start date to allow greater time to compound, putting your family in better position to handle college expenses as they arrive. This is especially important for families considered “middle class” as they may have just enough income to reduce financial aid eligibility, but lack the actual cash to pay college outright. A dedicated college savings strategy is critical in such cases.

About the Author Ken O'Connor

I'm an expert in higher education solutions for families searching for the right college fit.

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