Should You Save for Retirement or College?  header image

Should You Save for Retirement or College?

With the average cost of college tuition topping $16,000 (and almost three times that for a degree from a private college) and only 25 percent of Boomers believe they’ll have enough money for retirement, covering the cost of college while making retirement contributions might seem impossible. Deciding whether to allocate savings to college or retirement can be even more challenging.

Before investing in a 401(k) or 529 plan, consider these important facts about covering the cost of college and retirement:

There are options to cover the cost of college:

Not enough cash to cover tuition? Your student can seek out scholarships, apply for financial aid, or participate in a work-study program to help cover the cost of their education. A recent Sallie Mae report found that students used a combination of income, savings and loans to cover 30 percent of the cost of their educations — the highest percentage since 2009.

In contrast, there are no loans to cover the cost of necessities such as housing, utilities and groceries. In fact, contributing to a 401(k) or IRA (or both) helps offset any shortfalls between your expenses and any pension or Social Security payments. Continuing to work well into your Golden Years might be an option, too. Retirement savings can mean the difference between covering expenses and getting behind on bills.

You don’t have to decide now:

Rather than fretting about how to allocate savings for future tuition and retirement expenses, focus on establishing a nest egg. While some investments are subject to strict rules — a 529 plan must be used for education; funds from a 401(k) cannot be withdrawn without penalties until age 59 ½ — other investments offer more flexible options (but might not have the same tax advantages).

Investing in an IRA makes it possible to start saving now and decide whether to allocate those funds to higher education or retirement in the future. You can withdraw funds, penalty-free, if they are used to pay for tuition, books or other qualified educational expenses for a spouse, child or grandchild.

The average amount parents withdrew from their retirement savings to fund college education jumped from $2,710 in 2013 to $4,321 in 2017, according to Sallie Mae. Although withdrawing funds from an IRA to cover qualified educational expenses is an option, it’s not popular; the Sallie Mae report found that just five percent of families used retirement savings to cover college costs last year.

The bottom line:

Saving for the future is essential. While conventional wisdom advises saving for retirement over college, talk to a financial advisor about the best decision for your unique financial situation.

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