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  • I am a big believer in making sure your retirement is on track before worrying about college cost for your children. That may seem like a selfish statement, but if you think about it, it really is the responsible thing to do. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will be putting a lot of pressure on your children to help when they are in mid life, with kids, responsibilities, etc. If you secure your own retirement, then you can come back and help your kids with college later.
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  • I think they both can co-exist, it’s just that your priority has to be with taking care of yourself first. I am not a fan of going into huge amounts of debt in order to go to college, but some debt isn’t the end of the world. My parents saved for my college education but not all of it. I was grateful for having a nice chunk of money for college and was OK with having to take loans out for the rest.
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    • John says:

      I agree Jon, having some student loan debt is ok…especially if it helps gear the student towards the principle of how things we want or have to work for have a cost associated with them.

  • I think retirement planning and college savings HAVE to co-exist! My wife had no aid from her parents, but their income made her ineligible for most assistance besides loans. I don’t want to put that burden on my children, so I plan on helping them out with at least part of their tuition. It’s how it went with my parents and I’m grateful for their sacrifice. Retirement planning, though, absolutely has to be done if you plan on saving for college as well.
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    • John says:

      We want to help and do our part as well DC and I think that comes in a variety of forms. Like you said though, that retirement planning is vital and saving for college is moot if you’re not investing for retirement.

  • I think they can co-exist, but you have to plan it out a lot more carefully and set some fairly rigid goals. It might also mean that you have to work a little bit longer, but as you said, you would do anything for your kids.
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  • They can totally co-exist. We do it. In fact, I think that they should co-exist. Just remember to put the emphasis on retirement if you have limited funds. However, like you said, planning for college doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Every little bit helps.
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    • John says:

      I agree Greg, it does not have to be an all or nothing approach and that retirement investing does need to take priority if you have limited funds.

  • Mrs. 1500 says:

    While I was very young, my parents started saving for college for my sister and me. My dad would purchase a $50 savings bond for us each paycheck. They matured when I was in 2nd grade, and I had to sign my name to about 200. I still remember that. “Sign 25 then you can go play for 15 minutes.” He then put the money into the longest-term CD he could find, which in the very early 80s was paying something around 14% interest. I think he locked us into that for 5-10 years. It matured around the time I was ready for college and it paid for my oh-so-useless Fashion Design degree 100%.
    My parents have retired at regular retirement age, and they sold their house, bought a huge truck and RV, and now travel around America building churches. They have oodles of money for retirement, and are wondering what to do with it all before they die.
    Just because you are saving for retirement doesn’t mean you have to save an equal amount for college. I think it is healthy for college kids to have to work. Learn about the real world before they jump into it. And have a few thousand dollars in loans that you have to pay off.
    I also feel the cost of college cannot continue its upward spiral. And many degrees are not worth pursuing. Mr. 1500 studied to be a pharmacists, and halfway through pharmacy school decided it was not for him. A friend mentioned in passing a computer class he was taking outside of school. It cost something like $2,500, and now he makes a hefty salary AND enjoys his job.
    This was a great post, it has gotten me thinking…
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    • John says:

      That’s an awesome story Mrs. 1500! I agree that it is healthy to have kids work while in high school and In college to help prepare them more for what it’s like in the real world. I know it was a huge benefit for me and taught me that things you want come at a cost. Glad to get those mental juices flowing. :)

  • Matt Becker says:

    Almost all of our long-term savings go towards retirement. We put a small amount each month into a 529, and while our current college savings rate won’t amount to anything huge, like you said every bit helps. For us, it just comes down to the conventional wisdom that there are many ways to pay for college but if you don’t have retirement money you’re out of luck. I think you’re point about college not being an all-or-nothing proposition is a great one, and I also don’t personally believe that $15-20k in student loans is the worst thing in the world. It would be great not to have, but if you’re focused then you will turn that into a fine return on investment over your lifetime.
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    • John says:

      I have been meaning to get started on 529’s for our kids but have not taken the time to do so yet. I agree, as long as you get a solid degree then $15k is not a whole lot when viewed in the scheme of things.

  • Jai Catalano says:

    I paid for college out of my own pocket. I never saved for it and got very little aid. I paid it real time. My mom didn’t have the money to save but I ended up doing it myself. When my mom remarried she got financially wise. My step dad taught us all well. He is retired now and all he does is trade stocks all day. He loves it and has been doing it his whole life.
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    • John says:

      While I am sure that was likely difficult I am sure you learned some great lessons along the way. I paid for a big chunk of mine, but was largely in loans.

  • Definitely possible, though challenging. It’s hard to juggle, as you point out, which gets more automatic allocation, since they are both imperative and somewhat statuary.

  • I agree, John, they can co-exist. We do, though, we give retirement planning the top priority between the two. I think it’s important to save for both, instead of putting all of your money for one or the other, but make sure your retirement plan is sound and on track, so that you don’t put the burden of supporting parents onto your kids. As a parent, I can always eventually take some of my retirement or other funds and pay off those student loans, but I can’t borrow to retire. Great stuff here, John. Too many people claim you must do one or the other.
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    • John says:

      That’s a great point Laurie, there are no loans for retirement. It’s a good thing there is not either as I fear more people would die with massive debt than do now.

  • I think college planning and retirement planning can both co-exist but if I had to choose which one I would rather contribute to I would suggest putting it towards your retirement fund first. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t want to contribute to my child’s future when it comes to college but I know personally their is no way I could ever pay for my child’s entire college education. Instead I plan to help them out in other ways such helping them cover the cost of books and room and board.
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    • John says:

      I would be the same way Chris. I would hate to be a burden on our kids later in life because we put them through school but did not save for our retirement.

  • Tough predicament this John and it’s something that’s on the minds of many in the UK since the introduction of Tuition Fees. Many people are seeing their pension entitlements being revised and now also have the extra worry of paying for their kids education, while in many cases still trying to work their way out of debt. I think debt repayment eclipses the others in the short term and then like Glen said, I think you’d need a firm and rigid plan to attack the other two.
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  • Jake Erickson says:

    I think that it is definitely possible for them to coexist. If you get on top of saving for college early then it ends up not being that high of a monthly amount (around $200 a month per child). I tend to think that if you HAVE to choose one or the other to choose retirement first and then do college, but that does not mean saving 15% for retirement and 0% for college. There is a healthy balance, you just have to find it.
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  • E.M. says:

    I think they can co-exist, but I have a different perspective. My parents saved a little for me in a mutual fund – I think they deposited $50.00 a month into the account for most of my teen years. When it came time for me to attend college, I was very aware of the costs, and chose to do my first year at a community college. The mutual funds paid for this completely.

    When I transferred to a private college (costs still on par with state schools though, no dorming) my parents helped me for my first year. Then my dad lost his job, and my mom told me there was no way they could continue to help me. I understood completely, and even though I have student loan debt, watching my parents struggling with retirement right now is hard. They’ve been great to me and I would never hold it against them that they couldn’t help me out more. They deserve the best out of their retirement. Sure, they are in debt and if they were better prepared things might have been different, but no one is perfect. My student loans aren’t anything I can’t handle (thankfully) and if things go well for me I would help THEM out in the future as long as I am able to take care of myself first.
    BTW, your kids are adorable!
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    • John says:

      I can imagine that is difficult to see now that your parents are in retirement. That is great they were able to help you to the extent they did.

      Looking back, would you have put off using the mutual fund money for community college and used it instead towards your 4 year university? Thanks for stopping by. :)

      • E.M. says:

        Honestly, my one year of community college was probably around $2,500-$3,000 and it definitely didn’t make sense to take out loans for that. I was lucky in that I took a lot of AP classes in high school, so I had credit for English & History, so I didn’t have to take these in college. Coupled with the “basic” courses I got out of the way in community college (didn’t make sense to pay a ton more for 100 level classes at the 4-yr college I went to), it enabled me to start on my major as soon as I transferred out. I was also able to graduate a semester early by taking 18 credits my last two semesters and then summer classes in-between. I definitely didn’t want to extend my stay when tuition kept rising every year! I tried to be as smart about it as possible.
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        • John says:

          That makes total sense. That’s great you were able to knock so much out with AP courses, that’s our desire for our children.

  • Michelle says:

    I think they can co-exist, but I think retirement planning should come first. I paid for all 3 of my degrees completely on my own, and I did just fine :)
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  • Certainly retirement and college saving can coexist, but for sure the challenge is greater! I think many parents are tempted to put too high a priority on college fund savings vs. their own retirement. Unless you’ve struck a deal with your 8-year old to use his or her higher education to help pay for your retirement, you’ve got to think about yourself first, selfish as that may feel. You surely don’t want to be a financial burden on your kids during your ‘golden years.’ Your kids will find a way to fend for themselves through college and beyond, just like you did!
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    • John says:

      I agree Kurt and too many go to the extreme and over save for college and do little for retirement. I have seen it too many times to count and often times it’s to the detriment of the parents.

  • I think that they can co-exist but it probably won’t be easy on the parents or the kids.

    One thing that amazes me is that PF writers never seem to mention making sure that their kids actually perform well (or even excellent) in school. If kids are brought up with good grades and a good work ethic they’ll be able to go to expensive prestigious schools. Loans won’t really matter since they’ll already have what it takes to get a high paying job as soon as they graduate. Or they could go to a state school on nearly a full ride (that’s what I did).
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    • John says:

      That’s a great point MFIJ and one that I did not cover (in this specific post, but have in others) really mainly as I think that goes without saying. That said, I wish the job market was one currently that guaranteed a decent job upon graduation. I think that’s even more of a reason why an informed decision on college is vital.

  • Mackenzie says:

    I think they can co-exist, but the emphasis should be on retirement. There are always options when it comes to college. The same can’t always be said for funding for retirement.
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  • anna says:

    Oh my goodness, your kids are so adorable!! I agree they can co-exist, but have it probably lean more towards retirement. I also think that working through college is great, and helps them learn work-life balance. Heck, I’m a believer of working in high school, as well – I think it creates a strong work ethic when young people earn stuff rather than just have it given to them.
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    • John says:

      Thanks Anna! I would agree on both points, I started working my freshman year in high school and it was immensely helpful in developing my work ethic.

  • I agree with what most people are saying: Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help your kids. Lots of reasons for that, but the main one is that you have a lot less road in front of you. If you’re hoping to retire in, say, 10 years but they are just starting their careers, it’s better for everyone if you get your own situation under control first.
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  • John, your kids are ADORABLE! When I first saw this post, I thought “oh cute stock picture of kids” but then I read that they are little frugal rules :D
    I think depending on your financial situation retirement and college funds can co-exist but if you had to choose one, look out for you and the Mrs. first. My parents never paid a penny for my college education but they were dirt poor. I graduated with a whack of student loan debt but I have no resentment towards them at all.
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  • I believe they can co-exist and they are currently for me and my wife. I don’t know how long that will be the case, but we are trying to fund both. If you make your kids self-sufficient, then hopefully they won’t need your money for college.
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    • John says:

      That’s a great point Grayson and one that very few see the importance of. I’d much rather them use that money towards a down payment and get through school on someone else’s dime.

  • krantcents says:

    They have to coexist! Retirement savings is more important if you have to make a choice. Community college for the first 2 years is a less expensive solution to escalating tuition costs.
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  • Wonderful post, John and no cyber stones will be thrown at you from me! I agree that it is a delicate balance and I love my girls very much too (your children are ADORABLE!) but there is no loan for retirement. There are options for college from scholarship and grants to financial aid. I’ve seen many parents give everything they have to their children and leave nothing for themselves. Now they are struggling financially and becoming the one they never wanted to be to their children – a burden. Even worse, some of these kids are so used to getting everything they wanted from Mom and Dad that their own financial situation is a mess and they cannot help either. The very best thing parents can do is take care of themselves by funding their retirement then setting aside what they can to help their kids. Be clear with their kids on how much money they can provide and then help them figure out how to finance college through scholarships, grants and working and financial aid. And most importantly – help them be prepared to make smart financial decisions! Love this post!!
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    • John says:

      Thanks so much Shannon, I appreciate it! I have seen too many of those families as well and it is sad to see. I know it comes, generally, with good intentions, but those intentions can end up in a very bad situation if left unchecked.

  • We homeschool, and currently, we’re doing a prepaid college plan for the three kids, but we’re only paying for two years. Why? We’ll do the rest with a different plan, but most likely, the kids will only go to college FULL time for two years. We do early college-level classes, so between AP, distance education, and enrolling part time at the community college and university, they’ll have two years of college credit by the time they graduate from high school.

    Maturity is really the sticking point, rather than academic preparation.

    • John says:

      That’s a great plan of attack Jenny. We have good friends that have done something very similar with their kids and one just graduated high school and got a full ride to a local school but will be there less than three years.

      I actually think the two go hand in hand, generally speaking.

  • I’m with the several other PF bloggers who support retirement saving taking precedence. I sure hope the two can co-exist, but long run I think there are more options for children to fund their own college educations than for retirees to fund their post-job survival.

    As a recent college grad, who had to pay for 50% for my education, I don’t think parents are required to fund college (especially not in its entirety). It’s a gift for parent’s to help pay for college. I also like your point that college isn’t for everyone.

    Overall I really liked this post, John. It provides some great things to think about. The frugal rules babies are cuites who will certainly grow up financial literate, a true advantage in life.
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    • John says:

      Thanks for your insight Erin. I think they can co-exist, generally speaking. I think a big key is finding balance and doing it wisely. I think it is a gift to be able to pay towards the education, though I would hate to be a burden to our kids because we did not save for retirement.

  • I can understand how difficult this struggle can be! Tuition is clearly awfully high in North America, which makes me so glad that even top rated universities in Norway are tuition-free… it makes it a lot easier for parents, as they don´t have to worry about their children´s education.
    Your kids are adorable btw, and luckily it´s a long time until they´re heading to college, so at least you got time to figure it all out!
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    • John says:

      That’s an awesome benefit to have, and yes tuition is going up year after year here in the States which can make it much more difficult for many.

  • I certainly hope by the time your children are college-bound the student lending system will be majorly reformed and tuition won’t be nearly as costly as it is now (one can hope!). With the student debt crisis gaining momentum, I would personally focus more on retirement. But this is coming from someone who has $0 saved for retirement because of my student loan debt. The two can definitely co-exist.
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  • While both are important, I would err on the side of saving more for retirement.

    At the end of the day, my future children can take out loans, apply for scholarships/grants and work to pay for college. Or they may decide they’d rather go into the trades and forgo college all together.

    I won’t have the luxury of those options if I’m short of my retirement savings goals.

    • John says:

      I completely agree Bob, especially in light of the fact that they will generally have much more time to deal with which improves their options. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  • Cat says:

    I think so – I know my parents helped out with school and saved for their retirement as well. I try to help out those I care about with kids by giving them money when the kids are little to put aside.
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  • Those are some cute kids! I think retirement savings is the most important, but I think they can coexist. If you have to chose one you should chose retirement savings. That being said, a good budget makes anything possible, it is all about priorities.
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    • John says:

      Thanks Nick! I could not agree more, it really does come down to determining those priorities…which a budget should be able to help.

  • Saving for kids’ college fees can form a prototype for retirement saving. Saving (or investing) is saving (or investing). It’s really all one thng.
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    • John says:

      I do think that might be oversimplifying it a bit John. Both have unique timelines and potentially have different approaches, not to mention where you’ll put your focus.

  • jim says:

    I think you are wise to do both at the same time. Having put 2 kids thru college debt-free and entirely on our dime (except for what little $ they earned for “socializing” and some scholarships) I can tell you that we were very happy to do so, since spouse and I paid dearly for our undergrad/grad education. We really did struggle while in “higher” education and didn’t want to see our kids ever have to live like we did. So we saved more than enough for their educations – the problem with that is that we also over-indulged them when they were in college. Now we’re facing retirement and I’m wondering if we shouldn’t have been a bit more strict with them, i.e. really? study and travel abroad? I don’t know if that was a mistake or not, but I do question it. However, the study abroad thing has lead to a fullride scholarship for son’s law school – which, monetarily speaking, is way more than what we paid for his little excursions. It’s a balancing act and who really knows exactly where that right balance lies? Best of luck. I think you’re doing the right thing and your kids are going to benefit tremendously from their parents’ wisdom. Good for you guys. I love hearing how your generation is stepping up and being so responsible. (Maybe you guys had some pretty awesome parents who set you on the right road).

    • John says:

      I agree Jim, it is a balancing act and one that I believe will be different for each family. I think there are numerous other things that go into the college experience than just saving money for them…determining the major, possible jobs, etc. essentially to help them have a holistic view of being financially literate. This is also not to mention the fact of what higher ed will look like in another 12-15 years.

  • I agree that they can coexist, because, as you said, college isn’t all or nothing for the parents. I’ll expect my children (which I don’t have yet) to pay for a portion of their college, so that I can instill a work ethic and seriousness about their education into them, but like you, I don’t want them to have to worry too much about money while studying. It’s a hard balance, but doable.
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    • John says:

      I think there is a balance of wisdom of having them pay for part of it for a variety of reasons. I think that’s just another part of seeking that balance that is difficult, but doable.

  • They can co-exist but too often people are worrying about their children’s education before they take care of themselves. Get your things in order before you worry about college. What does it matter paying for your childs education if they get stuck with taking care of you because you didn’t save. They can pay for themselves if need be. I did and did just fine.
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    • John says:

      I agree Thomas. I have seen too many forfeit their retirement to put their kids through school. I admire the desire, but I fear that it’s just a bit shortsighted in the long run.

  • Andrew says:

    I think that retirement saving definitely takes precedence. Your kids can take out loans (though preferably not) or get financial aid/scholarship for college, there are no loans or scholarships for retirement. I would save in a 529 plan for my kids but I would put retirement savings as a priority. In any event, if you have overfunded your retirement account, it is possible to make penalty free withdrawals if need be.
    P.S: your kids are adoreable!
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    • John says:

      I would tend to agree Andrew, I think that retirement should generally be the priority. I think there are many options to look at for funding college and you do not want to sacrifice retirement savings for it. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Great topic John!. I believe they can co-exist as we are doing both with some degree of success. If I had to lean on one as being more important it would be retirement. If I had to give it percentages I would say somewhere in the 65/35 range in favor of retirement. That’s about where our assets are shaking out in these categories. The last thing I want is for my 40 year old children to have to support me in retirement because I gave it all to them for schooling. As you mentioned there are multiple ways to get through college for today’s students, including going at a slower pace to spread out the financial commitment.
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    • John says:

      Thanks Brian! I do think they can co-exist and would hate the same thing too. It’s one thing if you as a parent are unable to physically take care of yourself, it’s another if you did not save anything.

  • Pauline says:

    If I had to choose I would go with retirement, and push the kids to get scholarships. I don’t think college is a must for many careers but if they want to be doctors and are good at it I would do my best to help them with college, once retirement is on track.
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  • I completely agree that you can have both. If you can manage to stay out of debt and live below your means, it’s especially true. I don’t think it should be a given that you pay for your kid’s college education, but I hope to be able to pay for at least a part of it, and help with planning for any amount that has to be borrowed. I also think you can pay back your loans if you take a reasonable amount for the salary you expect to receive and don’t go out and buy a new car the day after you graduate.

  • I’ve got to back you up John – my wife and I are saving for both retirement and our kids’ college funds. At the moment we don’t have too much going in, but its something and it will be more than if we had done nothing at all. I consider saving for my 401k and IRA to be very important, but I also do not want my kids to have college debt like a lot of young people have now. I think there can be a balance, and I find both to be a priority.
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    • John says:

      I completely agree MMD. I think there can be balance and have both to be a priority – as long as you do not sacrifice retirement in the long run.

  • Chris Peplinski says:

    Great detailed article. I have four rules to flow before contributing to. A 529 college plan.

    1) have no consumer debt (credit cards). You can’t build wealth while you’re in debt.

    2) Max out your 401(k) – if that means you can contribute the whole $17,500 great! If not, then at least 15% of your income. As Wade Pfau states from his intensive research, the magic number to retire with enough money is a 16.6% contribution rate.

    3) max out a Roth IRA. $5,500 each year to a Roth is critical for tax purposes when you are in retirement. Back door Roth’s for those who make a great income.

    4) a fully funded emergency fund of 6-8 months of living expenses. This makes emergencies small inconveniences and not having an EF can get you into debt quickly.

    These are my golden rules to follow before anyone begins saving for college.

    ~Chris

  • Denise says:

    I haven’t read all of the comments on here, but I do want to say that I think saving for college and saving for retirement can definitely co-exist. But I think how the money is distributed should be determined by each family’s individual circumstances.

    My husband is currently the only income earner in our family. And while we are fortunate to have the average family-of-four income in the U.S., we are not rolling in the dough by many people’s standards. We put more into retirement accounts than the 529s, so we are definitely prioritizing retirement over college savings.

    But we have been careful to consider any hard-and-fast financial rules before applying them to our lives. We became parents young at ages 23 and 24. We have two children; our oldest child will be starting college when we are in our early 40s and our youngest will be graduating before we are 50. So we are going to need college savings a little earlier in life than many financial advisers assume. We also have more retirement options than many families–two IRAs, a 403b, and a 457b. This is a blessing, but we don’t follow the rule that some advisers give of funding all retirement vehicles as much as possible before putting anything into the 529s. If we did that, all of our savings would go into retirement. That seems too extreme to us.

    I just think that, in coming up with funds for retirement, most American families could consider cutting down on how much they think they need to spend on housing, transportation, entertainment, etc. before they consider cutting out college savings.

  • At first, I wanted to provide my children with 100% of their university funding. My parents had done so for me. But the reality of personal debt and approaching retirement made that scenario very unwise. We are paying, through an education investment, for about half of our daughters’ undergraduate degrees. They have to come up with the rest. So far, our first daughter has graduated debt-free, and our second daughter is steering clear of debt at university. The patchwork of our contributions, income from their part-time work, and athletic bursaries – it all adds up. And although I can be considered lucky to have had my post-secondary education paid for, decades late, I’m in debt. I believe my children will gain much more financial wisdom than I had to start out with.
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    • John Schmoll says:

      It sounds as if you’re daughters are getting a good balance which is what I think is key – especially if it helps allow for them to graduate with some wisdom and financial literacy. I think the thing that many overlook is that college/retirement doesn’t have to be an all or nothing scenario, but both can be done if you balance it right.
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