Should You Prioritize Retirement Savings over College Savings?

Neal Richards |

As a young parent looking to the future, you may be faced with a daunting choice: do you save earnestly to secure your retirement, or save to fund your children’s education? 

This question hits close to home.  If you think about it, the goal is similar: taking care of one’s family.  Retirement savings can be thought of as “financial independence” or “financial security.”  Similarly, kids’ education savings is geared toward empowering or children with tools for their own financial independence and the best opportunity for financial security.  What better investment can any of us make than in education, knowledge and wisdom for future generations? 

It’s possible to do both, but with the cost of college education and retirement rising faster than the rate of inflation, targeting just one of those goals can be a challenge. It’s estimated that 36% of people feel that they’re falling behind on their retirement savings goals*, and if you feel similarly, you may need to assess your current goals and priorities. Here are some things to consider if you’re choosing between saving for retirement or college:

  • Unless you have a guaranteed pension and work benefits, you’re responsible for saving for your own retirement. In contrast, students have access to scholarships and financial aid to help them pursue higher education.
  • Some qualified retirement accounts, like your 401(k) and Roth IRA, are not counted as an asset when determining your child’s eligibility for financial aid. Understanding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form is complicated and beyond the scope of this article, but generally, assets accumulated in your child’s name can count against their eligibility for aid.
  • Speaking of qualified retirement accounts, some accounts, like a Roth IRA, can be used as a source of college funding. Keep in mind that while you can withdraw from your Roth without a penalty, the amount you withdraw is counted as untaxed income on the FAFSA®.
  • Many students aren’t able to make it through college on aid alone and may need to have access to additional savings for college. One option is a 529 College Savings Plan, which offers tax-free withdrawals for college expenses. Consider speaking to a financial professional or college planning professional to learn more and see if this could be part of your college saving strategy.

You Need a Strategy

College is expensive, but saving for it shouldn’t come at the cost of your other financial goals. When planning for higher education, consider how it fits into your full financial strategy, and look into the funding options available for college (i.e. aid, grants, and scholarships). Regardless of your strategy, planning and saving early can help you prepare for college costs when your child is ready to attend.

It is my view that to truly help someone with a hand up we must come from a position of strength.  Because the parents’ financial strength will be the children’s financial strength for some time after college, it is my view that we ought not neglect planning for our own financial security first.  Wisdom, character and a deep knowledge about what is truly beautiful is my ultimate goal with the education of my children, all 5 of them.  These values are instilled first in the hearts and minds of the parents, if we neglect our own search for wisdom, character, and beauty, how will we ever have any to pass on. Similarly comfort, which means ‘com’= with, and ‘forte’= strength, can only be given if it is first possessed.

*Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2020 - May 2021,

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