If you're the parent of a child who'll be going to college within a few years, you probably have some choices to make about where to focus your savings — your kid's education fund or your own retirement. The answer: your retirement. There are lots of options for your child to pay for college. But if you're middle-aged and don't have a lot of savings, you need to fix that first.
Several ways to pay for college
If college is in the future for your child, but you haven't saved up enough, there could be various scholarships available based on his or her grades, location and interests. Not every scholarship will offer a full ride, but even partial awards could contribute thousands of dollars toward a four-year degree.
Students can also work part time to pay for their college expenses. Many schools have work-study and other programs that can be used just for this purpose. Having a job while in school could even give your child an inside track to get hired full time after graduation.
Your kid could also pay for college with student loans. As a parent, you may not want your child to take on debt, but at least he or she would have a working career ahead to pay it off.
Fewer ways to pay for retirement
Although your child has many options to pay for school, you probably won't be so lucky when it comes to retirement. You can't really borrow money or get a scholarship to pay for those later years. So before you consider funding a college savings account, it may be best to make sure you're putting away enough cash for when you leave the workforce.
Not enough people save for retirement. In fact, nearly 30% of private sector workers who had access to a tax-advantaged 401(k), IRA or similar plan in 2012 didn't participate in them, according to the Labor Department. Not only are they not putting away money for the future, they may also be paying more in taxes than they need to.
If you're not sure you're saving enough, you could look for small ways to boost your savings. For example, if you have access to a 401(k) plan at work, you could make a point to contribute at least up to the point of an employer match, which is like free money for retirement.
You can save for both
Some people save for retirement, but then take money out of their account when it comes time to pay for college. But when they do this they could incur penalties, increase their tax bill and miss out on the growth of their investments. A better option could be to save for both by making sure you focus on your retirement first, and then use any additional funds you have to open a special savings account for college.
If you're a middle-aged parent, putting away money for retirement and your child's education are probably two of your most important goals. By focusing on retirement first and then college tuition as your budget allows, you can give your entire family a range of options for savings success.
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