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savings jars with retirement scenes in them
Photograph by Jeff Harris for Money

You know how they say you should put your own retirement first, before saving for your kids’ college tuition?

I’ve always thought that rule should go in the can with other “sounds good, but who really does that?” types of personal finance advice. What parent, in good conscience, can think solely of her own future?

Well, judging by the median amount of retirement savings in this country for people 55 and up (a scant $104,000): many of us.

My son is nine and his grandparents do have a little money set aside in a 529 plan for him. My husband and I, however, do not. We’ve been playing mad catch up with our own retirement savings—following the standard-issue advice, above.

But it’s felt like a grim bargain, as we imagine our son at 22, dragging the chains of student loans behind him.

Then, something happened the other day that completely recast this dilemma for me.

First a flashback. I attended the sort of small elite private school that many parents lust after today. And because my family couldn’t afford it, even with pretty generous financial aid, I ended up with student loans when I graduated.

At the time, I didn’t give it a second thought. I hadn’t expected my parents to pay for college. My family had never had money for much, why would they have money for my education?

To this day, I don’t know exactly what I owed after graduation. I just kept paying the bills when the statements came. My mother helped out with one of the loans. After a decade or so, it was cleared out. I didn’t love having student loans, but it didn’t kill me.

Best college education image

Back to the present, where I’m now squashed between the competing financial, personal, and emotional goals that besiege you at midlife.

I don’t know if you saw “The Martian,” a movie that has Matt Damon stranded on Mars for years, growing potatoes in his own scat, while his space colleagues go to the ends of the galaxy to rescue him. You spend the whole movie shaking your head at every improbable twist and turn, saying: No way! No @#$% way!

That’s what money at midlife is like: a high-stakes juggle between the needs of your growing child (camp, braces, college); your aging parents (omg); and ordinary stuff (like your 150-year-old Subaru)—but without the help of NASA.

Case in point: Owing to various circumstance in the last year or two—fill in family drama and turmoil here—my brother and I have been obliged to help my mother manage her money.

The good news is, we’ve been gobsmacked to learn how much she has saved.

Just last year she “remembered” another account with some $200,000 in it.

For a while, relief outweighed other thoughts. She can afford assisted living! She won’t have to live with me!

But I’m a forensic accountant by nature. So I wondered: Where on earth did Mom get that money? She didn’t inherit it, that I know for sure. I began to think she must have started saving like a maniac at some point, probably while she was still working full time.

That’s when the light dawned—that I am actually on the other side of the scenario about putting your own retirement first. I am the adult child reporting back on the consequences of a parent prioritizing retirement over college tuition.

And you know what? Don’t doubt the wisdom of this advice for a New York second.

The fact that my mother has sufficient savings to cover her elder years has made my life immeasurably better right now, when it really matters. Her savings is vital for her, but it’s also a gift for me and my brother—and a far greater one than if we’d had less college debt (and more money for beer).

Sure, starting off adult life “saddled with loans” isn’t ideal. I’m not suggesting parents should abandon their 529 plans—nor that kids should recklessly borrow tens of thousands in student loans.

But should you (and I) prioritize retirement savings now, so that our adult children have less worry and stress and anti-anxiety medications down the road—even if that means they have a bit of a debt burden in their 20s?

Think ahead. Run the numbers (it never hurts). But above all, imagine asking your grown children which course they would want you to take. Then decide.