Should You Save For College or Retirement?

A senior financial advisor at Ameriprise says you should fund retirement accounts first.


Choosing how much of your savings to spend on a child's education while also planning your own financial future is a challenge every parent faces. Evelyn Dinkins, a senior financial advisor for Ameriprise Financial, has a daughter in college, but is also saving for her own retirement. Dinkins recently spoke with U.S. News about why you should fund retirement accounts before paying the bursar. Excerpts:

How should you prioritize saving for your children's college education and funding your own retirement?

The prioritization is a very personal thing. Typically retirement comes first and education is a close second. There is only one way to save for retirement and that's for you to do it. There aren't many pensions left out there. Never leave 401(k) matching money on the table. That's free money. Fully save for retirement and if there is money left over, then save for education. There are a lot of ways to pay for education. There are loans. There are scholarships. There are grants. There are also so many ways students can keep costs down. Students can go in state and live at home. Too often we see people who haven't saved for education and use their retirement accounts. If you do that you may end up having to delay your retirement. Are many parents able to completely fund their children's education while still keeping retirement plans on track?

A lot of times they can't fund the whole college experience and pay for retirement. They can only fund some amount of the college education. A lot of times their own experience has helped them decide how much college they want to fund. Sometimes parents come in with a very definite idea like, "I had to pay for college or my parents paid for me." We always start planning with the end in mind. Tell me what retirement is going to look like. Tell me what you want your child's college experience to be like. Should you level with your child about the family's finances?

Have a discussion with the student when they are about 16 or 17. They should start looking at various schools and get a feel for all these costs. You don't want the student to have unrealistic expectations. At the age of 16 or 17 they are capable of understanding what it's going to cost and where it's going to come from and what the family's finances are. Even if you could afford to pay for everything, it's important for the student to understand how much college costs. My daughter looked at one particular school and I just had to say that can't be on your list unless you want to come out with a massive student loan. Unless the kid can get a scholarship, they often don't go to the expensive schools. Expensive schools do have large endowments and the average student doesn't even pay the full amount because they have so much money to give. You need to check with the school. Typically you can find out on their website what the average student is actually paying. How does saving for college and retirement affect how much financial aid a student is eligible for?

Money that is set aside in retirement accounts is not considered money that is even available to go to a college education. 100 percent of that money is going towards your retirement. Don't put all of your savings into a 529 plan. The 529 plan is all for college and it can skew your financial aid. If you're counting on financial aid it may not be the best route. How much do you need to save to finance four years of college and retirement?

You need to be saving probably 20 percent of your income for retirement if you are going to be saving well for retirement. Most people are saving 5 or 6 percent for retirement. College always costs more than you think it's going to cost. If it says the university costs $10,000 a year, assume it costs more than that because you are going to be spending more money. You're going to need to have auto insurance, additional food, and what if they don't want to live in the dorm? It's going to end up costing more. You can find out what it costs and then I think you should add another 10 to 20 percent over what you think it is going to cost.