About a year ago, I wrote my first Vanguard Blog post to commemorate 529 College Savings Day. In that post I encouraged investors to start saving for college as early as possible. I also asked them to pay attention to fees, take advantage of potential tax breaks associated with 529 plans*, and consider the benefits of a simplified “age-based portfolio” approach. Those points remain among the most important college savings considerations (you can read about them here if you’re just starting out or you need a refresher).
Now that 529 College Savings Day is here again, it strikes me that I failed to address the sometimes frustrating challenge of saving for college among multiple competing financial goals. In isolation, it’s relatively easy to explain the benefits of saving for college with a 529 plan. But in reality, our financial lives are often messier than we’d like and nothing happens in isolation.
Saving for college is important, but you may also be worried about building an emergency fund, paying down credit card debt, chipping away at student loans, managing your mortgage payments…and don’t forget the biggie, securing your retirement. Perhaps you’re not dealing with all of these competing goals, but chances are, you’re juggling a few.
Which is more important – building a cash cushion to prepare for the unexpected or getting credit card debt off your mind once and for all? Which comes first – your well-deserved retirement or an investment in your child’s education? When you have limited resources to invest, it can be hard to determine which financial goals to prioritize.
When it comes to funding multiple financial goals, investors often have the toughest time grappling with saving for college vs. retirement. The practical, technically sound solution to this dilemma is simple: if you can’t afford to fund both goals at once, consider preparing for retirement first and saving for college second.
Looking at the problem analytically, we know that college can be paid for via multiple funding sources: student loans, scholarships, parental contributions, student employment, etc. Conversely, the majority of funding for retirement will likely come from a single source: your retirement savings. That said, some investors will freely admit that they have a hard time viewing these decisions in a perfectly practical manner. When your children are involved – no matter what the situation is – emotions are part of the equation. It may be easier to contemplate being saddled with personal debt for another year or two than it is to consider falling short on whatever portion of your child’s education you might hope to fund.
If this juggling act sounds familiar to you, you’re in good company. For most of us, it boils down to choices and tradeoffs. Funding college for your children may mean putting off your dream retirement for a few years – or perhaps it means keeping the time line intact, but altering the dream a bit. Pretending that there’s a perfect hierarchy by which every investor should fund their personal financial goals ignores the fact that our resources may be limited and our financial decisions are occasionally burdened by our emotions. And for many, college savings decisions involve more than one decision-maker. If funding college is a joint effort, you may have to balance your own priorities, values, and emotions with those of your spouse, partner, or even your in-laws.
If you’re so inclined, a professional advisor can often help you sort through and prioritize your financial goals. Often, developing a plan and monitoring your progress over time can give investors the sense of control they need to stay on track. An advisor might even be able to inject a welcome dose of objectivity into the discussion. But ultimately, the choices and tradeoffs are yours, and the only “optimal” approach is the one that meets your needs and aligns with your values.
If you’re struggling with how to prioritize your competing financial goals, 529 College Savings Day may be the perfect opportunity to take stock of your progress and confront or revisit the choices and tradeoffs that will work best for you and your family.
Do you have a tough time prioritizing your financial goals? What tradeoffs are you willing to make to achieve your most important goals?
*Your home state plan may offer tax breaks or other benefits for residents