College or retirement? How to save for your child’s future without disrupting yours

Funding education

Why saving for retirement should be a priority over paying for a child's education.


The cost of post-secondary education is steadily increasing in the U.S., and Generation-Z students are finding it challenging to pay for it.

At an average of $28,840 in the 2023-24 school year, even the cost of attending an in-state, public institution is significantly higher than it was a few years ago. Meanwhile, out-of-state student costs now average $46,730 for the same academic year and students attending private colleges pay an average of $60,420, according to the College Board.

For more on why the cost of college may be greater than you think, see our ‘Tuition madness’ bracket .

As the cost of a college education in the U.S. continues to rise, parents may want to help their kids get through school without accumulating a mountain of debtBut how much support is too much when parents’ retirement goals also need to be accounted for?  

It’s a growing concern given that 73 percent of Americans are worried about the impact of recent inflation on their ability to achieve a secure retirement, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

While many financial experts believe saving for retirement should be a priority over paying for a child’s education, about half of Americans disagree, according to an RBC Wealth Management poll conducted by Ipsos.

The poll found 49 percent of Americans place a greater importance on helping their children pay for school over their own retirement. 

The results showed millennials were most likely to prioritize financing their children’s education ahead of their own retirement. Sixty percent of Americans in that age group said saving for their kids’ education was more important to them, compared with 43 percent of Gen Xers and only 28 percent of baby boomers.

Cyndy Ranzau, wealth strategist at RBC Wealth Management–U.S., says with the gap between how much Americans have saved and what they’ll need to retire comfortably widening, saving for retirement should be the priority, but families can do both if they plan ahead.

“Ideally, college and retirement should be part of the same plan,” says Ranzau. “Clients can expect some tradeoffs as they balance these goals.”

That could include parents working longer to save for retirement, deferring the purchase of a vacation home, or encouraging their children to finance their education through scholarships and grants.

“With proper planning, it is possible to meet both major goals,” Ranzau says.

Ranzau offers three main tips for families seeking to balance their retirement savings with the funding of a child’s education:

Set reasonable goals

Ranzau suggests starting with a wealth plan, which can provide families with a better understanding of income and expenses. To make it most effective, she recommends not only looking at today, but also projecting both income and expenses out for the future, as much as possible. “By looking ahead a little bit, it’s easier to get an overall sense of whether their goals are realistic,” Ranzau says.

Revisiting that plan regularly is also critical. “It’s important to check in annually and both revisit and modify as income and expenses change,” she says. Ranzau encourages families to try to follow a 50/30/20 rule: allocate 50 percent of income to fixed costs, such as mortgage payments and utilities; 30 percent for flexible spending, like dining out, school trips or entertainment; and then use the remaining 20 percent for an emergency fund as well as saving for retirement and/or education.

Start saving now

Once you have a plan in place, it’s best to start saving, even a little bit, Ranzau says. “The power of compounding is often overlooked, but is pretty compelling,” she says. For example, if a couple saved $50 a month for 18 years, at a four-percent rate of return, they would have nearly $16,000 in the bank.

“That $50 per month may not be missed, and if you get into the habit of doing it, it can be a great way to set aside some money for education,” Ranzau says.

Set a target

How much of the education expenses will the parents pay for, and how much will the child have to cover themselves? Ranzau recommends parents have that particular conversation with their kids early to set expectations. This will also give the kids a financial target and enough time to start saving money through part-time or summer jobs before they head off to college.

Setting a target can also inspire them to apply for grants or scholarships. Even for parents who have the means to pay for it all, Ranzau recommends having the kids foot some of the bill. “I think it’s a good thing for kids to have some skin in the game,” she says. “Their education becomes more valuable to them. It also provides some discipline in the transition from being dependent to independent.”

Adds Ranzau: “I think it’s a noble desire and goal to want to give your kids an education and make it as painless as possible, but it makes things too easy—sometimes at the sacrifice of the parents’ own future.”

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, registered investment adviser and Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC.

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