I Have No Plans to Pay for My Children’s College

My retirement comes first right now.

I have a confession to make, one that seems like it totally goes against the grain of modern-day parenting: I have absolutely zero plans to pay for my children’s college.

Do I think college is important? Of course. Do I hope my children go? Absolutely. Do I plan on funding the bills for four children for four or more years each?

Um, no.

Listen, I’m 31 years old with four kids, aged three to nine. I’m a millennial sandwiched in an economy that’s teetering off the rails, and I’m doing the best I can. My retirement comes first right now, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. Children, meet scholarship applications, because that’s what I had to do, and it will be just fine for you, too.

I worked my buns off during high school to get a full-tuition scholarship to college. And although my parents and I never actually discussed who would pay for my college education, it was pretty well understood that I was on my own.

This was probably because I had paid for a lot of my own way during high school already. I paid my own cell phone bill, my gas to get to school, and my clothes – and I worked several jobs. I understood that my parents couldn’t fund me, and I was OK with that. I was driven and motivated. After researching my choices, I found that a university I was considering awarded one scholarship per year to the valedictorian of each high school.

Can you guess who earned the status of valedictorian at her high school?

Looking back, I can’t believe how lucky I was to make it through a four-year nursing degree with minimal debt, although I did work hard to make that happen. My scholarship covered all of my tuition in full. I had other scholarships to help cover costs, and my parents helped out with two semesters of room and board.

I continued to work and be as frugal as I could. Buying books for biology? Nah, I’m good, thanks. I was able to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree with less than $10,000 in debt from a state university and paid that off shortly after graduating. My husband had a similar path. By the age of 28, we had completely paid off our school loans, an accomplishment that I know is a rarity these days.

The truth is, college is just going to keep getting more and more expensive. I fully realize that the cost of college for my own children will be astronomical. In fact, the national average of sending one child to a public college for four years is $112,000. Private school is even higher, topping out at $236,000. And I have four children.

That is significantly more than my husband or I paid. But we believe it’s important for us to ensure that our present is paid for and that we are making a plan for our own future (i.e., retirement) because none of us knows what will happen.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve looked into options like college savings plans. But the benefits don’t seem to outweigh the risk of our children not going to college at all, something I am not opposed to in this economy. I’d rather put my money to good use right now than bank it away, only to have it stuck in an education-only fund they can’t use later.

In the end, I’ve decided to do what I can for each of my four children by stashing away a little at a time. I set up automatic transfers to savings accounts for them so that, at the very least, they have some money ready for them come college.

But until then, my focus will be on paying down our own debt and securing our retirement as parents, instead of funding our children’s college education. I believe that if they want to work hard enough for it, there are ways to get an education without accumulating massive debts.

It’s called building character, right?

So, sorry, children. Mom and Dad love you, I promise, but you’re on your own for college. May the force (and your computer for those scholarship applications) be with you.

Join the Discussion

23 Responses to “I Have No Plans to Pay for My Children’s College”

  1. Cindy McCullough

    That is your right, thought I have to admit I disagree to some degree. I do not know your personal finances, but yes, retirement comes first and I have to admit my husband and I intended to set aside money for college, but we did not. Luckily our husband’s parents had set some aside for each of their grand kids, but we would have paid for our kids college to a public school only. What has been set aside will run out about 2.5 years in and we will make up the difference at that point.

    I went to college mainly on my own money and I felt I missed a lot of opportunities by doing so. I worked as many hours during the school year as I was allowed, as did my twin, and worked during breaks. This mean that I could not study abroad, or get an internship. I looked at internships, but with how little they paid, I could not justify doing that rather than working during breaks. The problem is that your jobs out of college is more based on your work experience than your college degree. My on-campus job was secretarial. I have never managed to get away from that. If I had managed to get an internship more related to what I was interested in studying, I probably would have been able to get a job that more directly related to my major, like my husband did. His parents paid for his college and he was able to volunteer in a computer lab and that is how he obtained his first job in IT.

    Parents need to limit how much they pay for a child’s education, for their own finances and to make sure children have an investment in the process. But to expect a child to work it all out themselves, they will miss a lot of opportunities like internships, study abroad, things they can do on campus if they were not working and paying their own way. (The only way my twin and I could mostly do our own way too was because our family was lower income and received a lot of financial aid. If that is not the case for you, then it will be even harder on your children, especially as college education now is much more expensive than it was in 1995.)

  2. JJ

    Love this article, CB! As the 3rd of 4 kids, I knew early on that I would have to pay my way through college if I wanted to go. It made me much more focused in high school. I had to pay my own SAT/ACT testing fees, as well, so boy did I study because I didn’t want to pay again to take the test again! Sometimes I feel like I missed out on fun times from having to go to work so much, but honestly, I know it kept me out of so much trouble. I graduated with 8k in loans for undergrad and paid them off quickly. I was able to get my masters from Eastern Michigan and that is almost paid off, as well. From one SE Michigan girl to another, good work!

  3. Mekashia

    I understand your point. If you really want something, nothing will stop you. Sometimes if you work hard for something, you’ll appreciate it more. In our family, we’ve been putting away money since the kids were basically born, but it’s nothing huge. I know it will grow overtime as it has. I’m not even sure if it will even be enough to fully fund their school, but it will be a nice chunk. I enjoyed the difference of opinion.

  4. Susan Ticker

    I have no problem with your “confession” here. There is no contract that states parents must foot the bill for college or even help with college costs. It is interesting to note that as a married couple you can make that choice. But as a divorced mother of three in New Jersey the law “requires” parents to contribute to college as long as there was an expectation prior to the divorce that the children would attend college. Married couples in NJ have the right to say exactly what you are saying, but I was required by law to find money year over year for 7 years straight to contribute to my children’s college education. Fair? Equitable? No. More like double standard to me. I would like some people in the legal field to weigh in on if reading this post.

  5. Mick hodges

    One question. If this is your plan, why did you have so many children? Seems irresponsible to me.

  6. Kat Daniel

    Smart woman.

  7. Joe

    My inlaws were generous and gave my children $10k each. Like you, I considered a college fund but am going to a universal life insurance. I call it seed money that is guaranteed a certain interest rate. As for college, some general comments- I presume college educated children, but college is over priced and worthless. As an FYI, the ceiling on student loans was lifted and as parents, we will be held liable. If, in retirement, the child defaults, it will be taken out of your social security. So be ware! Our second son is army, so hopefully he will not be in debt. Good luck in your decision and the reason college cost is out of control is we have a third party paying and the lifting of a ceiling. Our children will leave college heavily in debt- good luck!

  8. Katie

    I love this article! I do not have children yet, but I have no plans to save for college for them once they do arrive. My parents also did not pay for my college; I got through on hard work, scholarship and the occasional loan.

  9. Christianne Curran

    The philosophy that I have heard and preach to others is that you can borrow for school but cannot borrow for your retirement. You may find down the road that circumstances change and you can help out with college but I see the wisdom in prioritizing your retirement security over a college fund.

  10. Claire

    I find the tone of this article somewhat short-sighted. It is wonderful that you were able to receive and maintain a scholarship and you showed a great work ethic paying your way through school. I think as a parent it is unfair to say to our children ‘well it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for you’. The landscape of college and college admission is rapidly changing and will be different for your children than it was for you. Saying that if they can’t do what you did, then maybe they won’t go to college seems unfair. They may have different struggles than you experienced and require different training and education than you received. A better way to approach the subject might be from a desire to support their education any way that you can. You still have many years to save for retirement and prioritizing it is a good idea, but it doesn’t preclude you from making their education a priority as well. You have a start with the saving accounts you’ve set up. There are other ways you can plan to cover more of the costs of their education. One example – since you are a nurse you could get a job at a university health office and qualify for tuition remission at that school as well as other participating schools. The tuition you “earn” for your children on top of your salary ensures that both you and your children get the resources needed for a promising future.

  11. Bernadette Cassidy

    I told my daughter I would not be paying for a college education and she got a full ride scholarship a state university. I paid for my college education by serving in the military and using the GI Bill. We both came out debt free when we graduated.

  12. Char

    Everyone is entitled to do what’s best for their situation. My husband and I decided when we had our 2 children that paying of their college education was an obligation, not a luxury. Were there other things that we could have done with that money? Definitely. I am sure Ms. Brusie does not understand that point of view. Just like I don’t understand why anyone would want 4 children in this day and age.

  13. Jessica

    I wonder if you think it is prudent to have so many kids. Do you feel it is unfair to potentially leave them in a more disadvantaged position than their peers whose parents can afford to pay for college or help them with college, possibly because they decide to have 1 or 2 kids? I’m just wondering … obviously there’s no “correct” answer. Just wondering your thoughts on that ….

  14. AnnieLaurie Burke

    Good for you. People appreciate the value of an education when they pay for it themselves. There are many options available, and the work experience will be valuable in making career choices, searching for a job after graduation and in so many other ways.

  15. Terese

    Excellent article. My circumstances were different in that my father set aside money in stocks/mutual funds when I was very little, and it had grown to the point that it paid for my public university when I reached that age. Mom & Dad weren’t wealthy at all, but extremely frugal and hard-working. Dad did the same thing for my 4 children, and we used the money for about half of each child’s college tuition, books, and housing, and eaked out the rest of the money from our wages. Each of them was expected to during the summers or more. I realize that tuition has gone up a tremendous amount, but the philosophy still applies. Dad, soon to turn 94, has created accounts for his 7 great-grandkids, which will grow and be worth something when they finish school. I’m glad we didn’t fall into the “college savings plan” trap. My 4 children needed vastly dilfferent amounts for their college costs, depending on their majors. One never left home, and just got a 2 year degree. We kept Grandpa’s money for her and it was used for a house downpayment after she got married at age 22. For our 7 grandkids, we have some investments, but some have disabilities and will not likely attend college. Some of our grandkids have rich parents, some have poor parents and will qualify for needs-based help. I’m so glad my parents & my husband & I didn’t lock into “college savings accounts.”

  16. Kate

    That’s exactly what we did. Stay the course. There are no loans for retirement.

  17. Lori Ernst

    Sounds like a good decision that will benefit your family more than the alternatives. I must criticize your parents, though for not talking to you plainly about your own situation. Please make sure you tell your kids early and often that they will need to pay for their college if they choose to attend and give them the tools to do it

  18. Melissa S.

    I’m 42 with 2 young kids and I’m not saving any money for their college educations. My husband and I haven’t saved enough at this point for our retirement, and that comes first. I don’t believe it is a parents responsibility to pay for their child’s college. It’s a luxury to be able to do that. If they choose to go to college, they can attend a community college and transfer to a state university, which will probably be the only viable way to pay for college by that time anyway. I would rather have them find a way to pay for college, than burden them when my husband and I are living in poverty in our retirement. And I’m an RN too, but it’s my second degree so I’m still paying off those loans!

  19. AF

    This is an interesting, and very timely, article. My daughter and I have been talking about her upcoming college education. We’re looking into laddering CDs (certificates of deposit) to help with the funding. That way, if she decides to do something other than college, she can use the money for that.

    On one hand, focusing on retirement as soon as possible is a must. Compound interest and time are our best friends. I put myself through college, and it took me until I was 36 years old to pay off that debt. I went through a divorce that set me back further in debt. I’m just now being able to fund my retirement and I feel very behind the ball. It’s really important to me to have that retirement, because I don’t want my daughter to ever have to worry about me.

    However, that limits my ability to help her with college. She’s a very motivated 13 year old, and already has quite a bit of money saved from odd jobs she does for friends and family. We talk a lot about continued education after high school. I feel like this early communication is essential.

    On the other hand, my Sweetheart’s parents put him through college. He started his retirement planning very early, and didn’t have any debt at all holding him back from it. His retirement is amazing! I envy him, and wish my parents had even known about how to really plan for retirement. I learned how to budget and pay bills, but retirement discussions were never part of my upbringing. My parents weren’t educated enough to understand it themselves.

    I would love to give my daughter the gift of an post-high school education, whatever that looks like, that’s debt free for both of us and have her reap the reward of having a much better retirement. We’re going to do the best we can to get as close to the goal as possible.

    I work hard, and I deserve a great retirement with no possibility of being a financial burden to anyone, especially taxpayers. And my daughter deserves an education and the same sort of retirement. We’re striving for that win-win!

    • Jill

      We did not pay for either of our children’s educations, and not because we could not afford to. We felt strongly that they would work harder and appreciate the education more. Our kids knew this well in advance. When they were in high school they both worked part time jobs and we matched every dollar they saved towards college, so they both started with some $. They also both applied for scholarships as well as worked during college. Out children took different paths; our daughter went to a state school (we live in CA) and graduated in 4 years – something only 17% of CSU students do, She will pay off her minimal student debt within 2 years of graduating, and is extremely proud of the fact that she put herself through school. Our son chose to go to a private school back east, but received a substantial amount of scholarships to make it affordable. He is now in his 3rd year of a 5 year BS/MS and will also graduate with some debt he will be able to pay off within 1-2 years. We did offer to pay for “extra” experiences like travelling abroad if they wanted to. My feeling is, if it is not affordable, there is nothing wrong with living at home and going to college locally. You save all that $ on room and board; tuition and books at a state college can be mostly covered by working a part time job, with a manageable amount of debt upon graduation. Community college is another great option. The problem is a lot of kids go to college, take 5-6 years to graduate, and finance the entire thing, and then get a degree in something that is not marketable.

  20. Ann

    Thank you for making us feel like we are not alone in this stance!

  21. LLR

    I wish more people would consider having the students live at home during college (assuming you live within commuting distance to said college).We live in a mid-size city with numerous post-secondary institutions, and it was drilled into our 2 that they’d be staying home for college. Mind you, we’re Canadian and it isn’t part of our Canadian culture to send students away for college almost automatically. If all you have to pay for is tuition, fees, and books, it changes the total $ amount drastically. We helped both of them with costs, but we only contributed about 1/2 of their education costs; they were on their own for the rest. Some of that contribution wasn’t actually ours, as their education funds had some money given by grandparents. Still, we sidetracked our retirement funding a little for about 10 years and then stopped funding the education account. I guess we did both – some funding to retirement and some funding to education at the same time. It’s true – you can’t take out a “retirement” loan, so make that a priority!

  22. Righty

    Good for you sister. I paid every dime of my own way too and that included graduate school, and that was not cheap. Meanwhile we do not have kids, but my greedy self entitled little princess sister in law tries to hit us, and very other living relative, up for college money for her four kids!