It’s a uniquely Gen X personal finance dilemma: Should those of us with young children be socking away our savings in 401(k)s and IRAs to make up for Social Security’s predicted shortfall, or in 529s to meet our children’s inevitably gigantic college tuition bills? Ideally, of course, we’d contribute to both—but that would require considerable discretionary income. If you have to chose one over the other, which should you pick?
There are two distinct schools of thought on the answer. The first advocates saving for retirement over college because it’s more important to ensure your own financial health. This is sort of an extension of the put-on-your-own-oxygen-mask-first maxim, and it certainly makes some sense: Your kids can always borrow for college, but you can’t really borrow for retirement, with the exception of a reverse home mortgage, which most advisers think is a terrible idea.
The flip side of this, however, is that while you can choose when to retire and delay it if necessary, you can’t really delay when your kid goes to college. Moreover, the cost of tuition has been rising at a much faster rate than inflation, another argument for making college savings a priority. Finally, many parents don’t want to saddle their young with an enormous amount of debt when they graduate.
According to a recent survey by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, out-of-pocket parental contributions for college, whether from current income or savings, increased in 2014, while borrowing by students and parents actually dropped to the lowest level in five years, perhaps the result of an improved economy and a bull market for stocks. But clearly, parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to doing what's best for themselves and their children: While 21% of families did not rely on any financial aid or borrowing at all, 7% percent withdrew money from retirement accounts.
If you're struggling with this decision, one approach that may help is to let time guide your choices, since starting early can make such a huge difference thanks to the power of compound interest. Ideally, this would mean participating in a 401(k) starting at age 25 and contributing anywhere from 10% to 15%, as is currently recommended. Do that for a decade, and even if your income is quite low, the early saving will put you way ahead of the game and give you more leeway for the next phase, which commences when you have children (or, for the sake of my model, when you’re 35).
As soon as your first child is born, open a 529 or similar college savings account. Put in as much money as possible, reducing your retirement contributions if you have to in order to again take advantage of the early start. Meanwhile, your retirement account can continue to grow on its own from reinvested dividends and, hopefully, positive returns. Throw anything you can into the 529s—from the smallest birthday check from grandma to your annual bonus—in the first five or so years of a child’s life, because pretty soon you will have to switch back to saving for retirement again.
By the time you’re 45, you will have two decades of saving and investing under your belt and two portfolios as a result, either of which you can continue to fund depending on its size and your cost calculations for both retirement and college. You probably also now have a substantially larger income and hopefully might be able to contribute to both simultanously moving forward, or make catch-up payments with one or the other if you see major shortfalls. At this point, however, retirement should once again be the central focus for the next decade—until your child heads off to college and you have start writing checks for living expenses, dorm fees, and textbooks. Don’t worry, you still have another 10 to 15 years to earn more money for retirement, although those contributions will have less long-term impact due to the shorter time horizon.
Of course, this strategy doesn’t guarantee that your kids won’t have to apply for scholarships or take out loans, or that you won’t have to put off retiring until 75. But at least you will know that you did everything in your power to try to plan in advance.
Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.