When my husband and I were expecting our daughter, we casually began to talk about college savings. In June 2015, we met our little girl and started entertaining the idea of having another University of North Carolina grad in the family (go Heels!).
Once we got into the swing of life with a growing child, it became clear that it was time to take our casual conversation about college savings to the next level. When my husband and I sat down and talked about the reality of juggling multiple savings goals—all of them important—we felt overwhelmed…and we had more questions than answers. Should we be saving for college already? If so, how much? Will we be able to meet our retirement savings goals too? How do we save for retirement and college and continue to pay down debt?
I know some parents feel they should make sacrifices for the sake of their children. If you want to cover a large portion of your child’s education expenses, that’s okay. But it’s also okay if you plan to cover a smaller portion, especially for an expense that can be paid for with savings, loans, grants, income (yours or your child’s), or through a combination of sources.
All of the goals listed below are important, but not all of them should be weighted equally. Here are some tips to help you prioritize:
- Retirement. First and foremost, pay your future self. Unlike college, you can’t take a loan for retirement. Getting caught up in the expenses of day-to-day life can make it difficult to make a long-term goal a top priority. If you’ve already started saving, keep it up. If you haven’t started yet, start now. When it comes to allocating savings, be as generous as you can with retirement.
- Debt. If you have high-interest debt, such as credit card balances or car loans, work toward paying it off. All debt isn’t created equal, and consumer debts like these aren’t tax-deductible and can end up costing you a lot in interest over time. While it’s smart to prioritize paying off your highest-interest debt first, don’t reduce your liabilities at the expense of building your assets (a.k.a. retirement savings). It’s important to find a balance.
- A rainy-day fund. Aim to set aside 3–6 months’ worth of living expenses. Then if something unexpected happens, you’ll be able to cover your regular living expenses for a few months without needing to pull from other accounts or taking on more debt.
- College savings. This goal is last but certainly not least. Even if your child is only a few years old now, think about what college will cost in the future—and how much of that you realistically want to cover (most families don’t plan on covering 100% or even 50%). Then choose an account, and start working toward your goal.
Keep in mind that some of your goals may get a leaner portion of your income in some years, and a more substantial portion other years. Flexibility is key to having a financial plan that works in real life.
Our daughter may choose to go to our alma mater, or she may not. But we feel good about the fact that the 529 account we opened for her will give her some financial support—and some options—when the time comes. And we feel even better knowing that saving for her future doesn’t mean shortchanging our own.