Income is finite, but the need to fund both retirement and college is endless. How do you divide and conquer?


For parents, college costs can weigh heavily on the mind. In fact, a recently released survey from Student Loan Hero revealed that 68 percent of moms and dads would consider withdrawing from retirement savings to help pay for their child's college. Fathers were especially likely to opt for this approach, with 74 percent saying they would consider using retirement funds versus 64 percent of mothers.

But that may not be the best approach.

Two labeled mason jars with money in them
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"I firmly believe that retirement savings has to always come first," says Jason Dahl, a financial planner in Bethesda, MD. "There's no one out there who is going to make an unsecured loan to help pay for your retirement. As much as a parent wants to help pay for college for the kids, if you're not able to, at least they can get loans."

That said, there's certainly a subset of parents who want to cover their kids' college bills, no matter what. In the struggle of retirement vs. college, how do you balance out equal desires to save? Here are some strategies.

Keep saving for retirement.

Don't stop saving for your golden years. Most experts recommend putting at least 15 percent away, although if you're getting started in your 40s or even 50s, you should be saving at least 15 percent a year, if not more.

Get your employer match.

At the very least, if you're struggling to figure out where to put your funds, contribute enough to your 401(k) at work to get an employer match, if there is one. If your company matches half of the first 6 percent you put away, for instance, you're essentially saving 9 percent for retirement overall. It's worth your while.

"If your company offers to match any percentage of your contributions to a retirement plan, you should participate and take advantage—that match is free money," Edward Gottfried, director of product for Betterment's 401(k) business, tells Parents.

You should also get all of your retirement funds organized so you have an accurate picture of where you stand financially, adds Gottfried.

"If you haven't done so already, consolidate all of the existing retirement accounts you already have—your 401(k) from an old job that hasn't been rolled over yet, for example—so that you can have a complete picture of your savings," Gottfried explains.

Start socking away for college ASAP.

The sooner you start saving, the less you need to save. That's the power of compounding earnings.

"As soon as you're pregnant, as soon as they're born, start putting something in, even if it's $50 or $100 a month," Dahl says. "That can really go a long way in easing your concerns."

The recent survey from Student Loan Hero found that 37 percent of parents began socking aside money for college before their child's first birthday. What's more, about 18 percent of that group started saving before their child was even born.

Take advantage of 529 plans.

This may seem obvious, but using a 529 plan is one of the most tax-advantaged ways to save for your child's college tuition. Yet according to a Sallie Mae report, only about 29 percent of parents utilize one, compared with the 45 percent that are using a traditional bank account to set aside money for college savings.

For those who need a quick rundown: Earnings in a 529 plan grow tax-free as long as you use the money for eligible education expenses, and in some states, you can get an income tax break for contributing. (Check to see if your state is one of these.)

"A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged investment account [where you can invest money] for future education costs. It covers a variety of education-related expenses: tuition, room and board, books, supplies, computers, and internet access," Nikki Hartung, divisional director for J.P. Morgan Wealth Management, tells Parents.

There are no income limits on contributions to a 529 plan, or age restrictions on the beneficiaries, adds Hartung. It's also important to note that if your child doesn't use all of the funds in the account, the beneficiary can be changed at any time, allowing the funds to be transferred to another family member.

Tell family you'd love some 529 help.

Instead of showering your little ones with copious gifts each birthday and holiday, ask grandparents—and perhaps even aunts and uncles—if they'd consider using some of their gift budget to put money toward college. Most relatives are thrilled to be able to do something that's really meaningful for your children.

"The great thing about a 529 is that it's really easy for other people to contribute to your child's fund, so encourage your child's grandparents, aunts, and uncles to make a contribution for birthdays, even if those contributions might seem small," says Gottfried.

Money invested early in your child's life will have an opportunity to grow over the years, helping to cover the costs of college or other higher education.

Save money in a Roth IRA.

If you're eligible for a Roth account, max it out each year. The advantage here is that you can use this money for retirement or educational expenses, so you don't necessarily have to make a choice right now. If your college costs are lower than you expect because you're raising a child genius who scores a full scholarship, you can put it all toward retirement. (And congratulations.)

"If you open a Roth IRA, you can contribute after-tax dollars and get tax-free withdrawals on qualified distributions in retirement," says Hartung.

Remember: It doesn't have to be one or the other

While everyone's financial situation is unique, the important takeaway here is that you do not have to sacrifice one of these goals in order to pursue the other successfully.

"When it comes to prioritizing financial goals, like retirement or future college costs, it doesn't necessarily have to be an either-or situation," says Hartung. "You can work with an advisor to create a holistic financial strategy that can help you meet your various goals."