Parental dilemma: Save for kids' college fund or retirement?

Jars of savings
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Be selfish. That's what financial advisers suggest when deciding how to prioritize your own retirement savings against putting away money to pay for the kids' college tuition.

"If you have to choose, retirement has to be your top priority. That goes against the grain as a parent to think of yourself first," said Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances after Fifty: Answers to Your Most Important Question."

Many parents are inclined to fund the college bucket first, but financial planners say that's a short-sighted decision. "You don't get a second chance to save for retirement," says Schwab-Pomerantz. "You can't get a scholarship or a loan to pay for retirement, while you can for college."

The Early Bird

The key is to start saving early -- with your first job. Set up a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account, and if your employer contributes, save enough to at least take full advantage of that match. That is "free money" that you don't want to leave it on the table. These retirement plans also offer another advantage: they reduce your current tax bill and they can grow with taxes deferred until you start to withdraw the money when you do retire.

A middle-income worker or couple who saves 10 percent to 15 percent of their income in their 20s and continues to do so should be secure in guaranteeing a comfortable income in retirement. However, Schwab-Pomerantz says if you wait until age 30 to start saving for retirement, you'll need to put away 20 percent of you paycheck, and if you want until age 40, it's 30 percent.

Now many parents would argue that they do not want to saddle their kids with a mountain of debt from attending college, and we've heard plenty of horror stories about that. But parents need to think long-term. If they are destitute when it comes time to retire, that could be an even greater drag on the kids, if they have to support or subsidize you for the rest of your life.

Hopefully, you'll be in a position to help put money in the college savings bucket too, and of course, the sooner you can start, the better. A NerdWallet study found that if you want to pay the full cost at a public university, you'll need to save more than $3,900 a year, if you start when your child is a year old. If you wait until age 10, that goes up to $11,147 a year.

Paying for College

While college is a huge expense, middle-income parents can feel liberated with the knowledge that there are a number of ways to afford it. "You have some wiggle room as a contributor," according to NerdWallet personal finance correspondent Farnoosh Torabi. She says your goal can be more manageable by planning to contribute 50 percent of the cost. The other half can come from financial aid, loans and the student. She says many parents want their kids to have some skin in the game by working part-time jobs in high school and college "to establish a higher sense of value, to appreciate the dollar value behind it and to learn about the real world."

Experts also say it's important for parents to have frank conversations with their kids about what is realistic and what is affordable. "Money is a taboo topic in many households," said Torabi, "but you need to change the culture in your household. Kids want to be part of the process of planning, especially if it means being able to go to the school of the their dreams."

The best way to save for college is through a 529 College Savings Plan. Like a 401(k), you can have money taken directly out of your paycheck on a pre-tax basis. You can even set it up before the child is born and change the named beneficiary later on. And unlike a 401(k), you can get outside help to fund this account. Encourage grandparents and others to contribute to it when they give birthday and holiday gifts.

There is also an increasing amount of scholarship money available to help pay for college. Stanford announced earlier this month that accepted students of parents who make less than $125,000 a year and have assets of $300,000 or less won't have to pay any tuition. Several Ivy League schools and other elite colleges are also waving tuition for more students from middle- and low-income families.

The bottom line is that when choosing between your own retirement and your kids; college fund, you have to think long-term -- and that may mean going against your intuition by thinking of yourself first.
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