Save for Our Future—or the Kids’?

Should Your Retirement Trump Your Kids’ College Fund?

My oldest daughter is 10. She just started middle school (and reading young adult novels, and asking if she can wear dangly earrings).

The future seems a lot closer than it used to be. Which makes me fret: How will my husband and I pay for college as well as our own retirement on our decidedly-not-the-1% income?

Since 1985—the year I started college—the consumer price index has risen 115%, while the rate of college education inflation has gone up nearly 500%.

And by 2016, when my daughter will be 15 and starting to think about college herself, the average cost of public college will have more than doubled from 15 years earlier.

My husband and I can’t afford to plump up our own retirement accounts plus 529 accounts for our two daughters. We have to prioritize, which makes me feel sick. But experts assure me we’re doing the right thing by socking away money for ourselves first. David McPherson of Four Ponds Financial Planning

) (who has a daughter who’s a junior in high school) says, “Retirement has to come first. Thanks to the disappearance of traditional pension plans, we’re more responsible than ever for our own retirement security.”

Indeed, my husband and I have been freelancers most of our lives; by comparison, my parents had only a few employers over their lifetimes. The future of Social Security is more uncertain now, too.

McPherson says, “What I tell young clients with young children is this: if you can get off to an early start accumulating a 401k balance when your kids are young, your overall financial situation will be healthier, and that gives you more flexibility in approaching college.” He points out that even though you can’t touch the money in your 401K without a penalty, you get more upfront tax breaks by putting money there (as opposed to a college savings account or elsewhere). And you’re thus better situated for the future.

But what about my Jewish mother guilt? How can I put myself before my kid? St.Louis-based psychotherapist and wealth counselor Marilyn Wechter) tells me to snap out of it.

“You can’t get loans for retirement,” she points out. “You can get loans for college.” Furthermore, she urges, involving Josie in the conversation about how much we’ll be able to contribute toward college is actually an important parenting opportunity.

“We parents may want to tell a kid, ‘The world is your oyster! I shall make possible everything your little heart desires!’ But at some point the kid has to take responsibility for her own happiness.

“You shouldn’t wait until junior year to start talking about priorities and choices. I’m a big believer in starting in childhood by giving an allowance to be divided into three parts: spending, saving and charitable giving. That gives a kid a sense of responsibility.”

Finally, I’ll remember what Eleanor Blayney (, author of Women’s Worth: Finding Your Own Financial Confidence, says:

“If you’re not providing adequately for yourself in retirement, you may impair your child’s financial prospects much more seriously than you would by underfunding a college education. None of us want to become burdens to our children.” Amen to that.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet magazine.