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What's the priority? Retirement or college savings

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DAVID PITT
September 21, 2010
— The challenge of saving for a comfortable retirement has a few more degrees of difficulty for parents.

They want to be able to retire when they're young enough to enjoy at least a few work-free years, but also want to help send their kids to college.


Striking the right balance is one of the biggest struggles parents face. And it can be tougher for older parents whose target retirement age may be that much closer to the time when their kids are in college.


Parents typically pay about half of the cost of college for their children. For many it's about ensuring that their family's next generation enjoys the enhanced job prospects that can come to college grads. But the price tag is steep. Annual expenses currently average between $15,000 a year for in-state four-year public universities to $35,000 for private four-year schools. And those costs rise an average of 6 percent a year.


The vast majority of parents start saving for college expenses early. Some 80 percent started stashing away money before their child turned 7, according to Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student lender.


And there's little doubt that starting early helps tremendously. Parents who saved for seven years or more accumulated two to three times the amount of parents who saved for shorter periods.


Corey and Lindsey Groepper, of Indianapolis, are believers. Parents of 1-year-old twins, every month they deposit money in a 529 college savings plan for each child. They're targeting $5,000 a year to maximize the state tax credit. They also contribute enough to match the employer contributions to Corey's 401(k) plan and put money into an IRA for Lindsey.


Funding both retirement and college meant something had to give. So the couple pared back on their entertainment expenses less dining out and the sports season tickets had to go.


"We live within a tighter budget in terms of what's in our checking account every month," Lindsey Groepper said.


She's 31 and works for a public relations agency and her husband, Corey, 35, is a sales manager for a logistics company. Both attended state universities on partial athletic scholarships and paid the rest with money from working and family support. They feel fortunate not to have their own college debt to pay and are determined to help pave the way for their children.


Financial advisers recommend that if an employer will match your 401(k) contributions, you should save that much at a minimum. Parents can then set aside college money through an account such as the increasingly popular 529 savings plan.


The 529 plans operate much like a 401(k) plan. Account contributions are placed in mutual funds or other investments. Parents can also opt for a prepaid tuition plan, that allows them to purchase college tuition for their kids in today's dollars.


While there are any number of college savings strategies, putting retirement first makes sense because the common advice is that there aren't any retirement scholarships. Parents face a finite number of years to build up enough money for retirement, while a student has more options for paying for education including grants, scholarships, loans and part-time job earnings. The parent likely has fewer choices for retirement working longer being the most likely and perhaps least palatable.


Floyd Saunders, of Andover, Kan., used those strategies and more to help four of his five children get a college education. At 60, he's working on figuring out how to put his fifth who's just entered high school through college.


A management consultant who spent most of his career in financial services, Saunders said he knows he's behind on retirement saving.


"Raising that many children on a single income hasn't always allowed me to max out my 401(k) contributions," he said. He's tried to maintain at least a 2 to 3 percent contribution from his paychecks and set aside a few hundred dollars a month for college funds, knowing that wouldn't be enough.


He said parents facing such financial challenges should recognize that they don't have to pay the full cost of a child's college education.


Planning ahead and making some compromises might be necessary. One of his sons, for example, lived at home for the first year to save money. Choosing a public university instead of a private college may also help.


He said he taught all his children to save as youngsters. Part of their allowance went into a savings account, which he matched. When the accounts accumulated a certain amount, the money was invested in a mutual fund.


He's set up a 529 account for his high school-aged son and contributes to it monthly in addition to a savings account his son puts money into.


A good way to begin to assess the necessary balancing act is to get a handle on the cost of college. Several calculators are available online. Don't be scared by the figures. Keep in mind that, on average, grants and scholarships pay about 23 percent of the college costs, and student loans about 14 percent, according to Sallie Mae.


The advantage of an account like a 529 is that the earnings grow tax free. But investing in the stock market is always subject to volatility.


What's more, in the current market where interest rates are anemic, parents need to be sure they're not investing too conservatively at the cost of generating enough growth to meet their goals.


Tom Evans, senior adviser with Minneapolis-based JNBA Financial Advisors, suggests the best way to stay on track is to establish an automatic transfer to a college savings account.


Another helpful strategy is to establish a mindset for grandparents and other family members to put money in the college fund instead of buying gifts for birthdays and Christmas.


This is another strategy used by the Groeppers.


Along with the Indiana 529 account they've set up for the children, Corey Groepper's parents set up another set of 529s in Iowa, where they live.


Saving for college and retirement will continue to challenge families but starting early and developing a plan for setting aside as much as possible will help.


For the Groeppers, it has taken some adjustment.


"For us it was looking at where we were spending and reallocating some of that toward our family," Lindsey Groepper said. "We are sacrificing, but in my mind it's for the future of our kids and for us, so it couldn't be going to a better place."



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