Should You Put Your Kids' Education ahead of Your Retirement?

If you're like most parents, you want nothing more than to provide your children with a college education. Some have been saving since before their children were even born, but more often than not, a substantial number of parents find themselves in the uncomfortable position where their kids are fast approaching college age, but they themselves are staring their retirement years right in the face. So the question becomes: Should you sacrifice your retirement savings to put your kids through school?


My parents worked hard their whole lives, but simply couldn't afford to pay for my college education. They taught me the meaning of money, and I knew I could take care of myself.

During a class I was taking this precise question came up.  The presenter reminded us that while college-bound kids can always get financial aid, there is no such thing as “retirement aid.” And while it's a nice wish, paying for a child's education is not an obligation; and it's certainly not worth taking out a second mortgage, cashing in a life insurance policy, or tapping into your IRA. Those funds can never be replaced, but your children will earn their own money. I can personally attest to this fact. My parents worked hard their whole lives, but simply couldn't afford to pay for my college education. They taught me the meaning of money, and I knew I could take care of myself.  I worked 7 days a week 12 hours a day in harvest during the summer months.  I took out student loans to pay for the balance that I owed.   — all while working during the school year, volunteering, and being involved in social activities.  My parents taught me how to manage my money and made me responsible for the loan payments.   That lesson in financial responsibility was as valuable as the college education.

While at university, I also noticed a powerful trend among my classmates, the majority of whom had their parents paying their way, and even supplementing their lifestyles with allowances and cars. These kids were no less intelligent than I, yet despite my over-burdened schedule, I was earning As while they were struggling to maintain a C average. It occurred to me that one of the reasons I felt so compelled to achieve was that it was my own money — money I was not about to go to waste. My education simply meant more to me, and my friends who were living off handouts were far less appreciative of their good fortune than I — and probably their parents — would ever have expected.

Anecdotes aside, the easy answer to this dilemma is to take care of yourself before you raid your retirement accounts and assets to fund your children's education. They'll certainly survive — and perhaps even thrive — knowing it's something they've earned. Armed with an education, they'll enter the workforce and establish their own retirement funds. With lifespans steadily increasing, your retirement could conceivably last upwards of 30 years, so ensuring you have the funds to support a long retirement means you won't become a “burden” to your children, relying on them for shelter, money or care. And if this were to happen, what was all your sacrifice for in the first place?

Keep your nest egg, encourage your children to achieve, and with a solid planning strategy and a bit of luck, you'll lead a long, happy retirement — one that allows you to spend time doing what you love with those you love, like those grandchildren you're probably looking forward to spoiling!

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