Saving for College or Saving for Retirement: What’s Best for Us?

This past weekend, my wife and I were watching Clark Howard’s show on Headline News. During the program, Clark stated a canard that I’ve heard several times from personal finance “gurus” over the past couple years: instead of saving for a child’s college education, parents are better off saving for their own retirement.

Clark’s main reason was pretty simple: people can’t receive scholarships or student loans for retirement. Obviously, that’s true: my children will be able to get all kinds of assistance for their college education, while I won’t be able to get any sort of aid for retirement. Not only that, if your child does have to get into debt for college, they’ll have many, many years to earn their way out of it, whereas when the children go off to college, you won’t have too many years to keep saving for retirement.

On paper, the argument does make a lot of sense. On paper.

This equation leaves out an enormous human element. For many people – myself included – retirement isn’t the big ultimate goal. I might like to think about retiring a bit early, but my big motivation in life isn’t related to retirement at all.

My big plans right now involve guiding my children into adulthood with enough life skills and opportunities that they can basically choose to do anything they want – and run with it. In most ways, my financial choices revolve around that motivation. I started 529 accounts for my children before they were even born (starting them with myself as beneficiary, then changing it). I’m already investing in educational opportunities for them.

Yes, I’m saving for retirement. However, I could be saving substantially more for retirement if I were not directing significant money to my children’s future – and I don’t just mean college savings, either. Other opportunities, such as camps that revolve around their interests, international trips, equipment and instruments they might need, and so on are also important – and by planning for them and saving for them now, I reduce the chance that changes in my career will affect the opportunities that my children have.

Clark’s advice is correct on paper, but it leaves out one of the biggest aspects of personal finance: setting your own goals. Most of my goals revolve around my children – thus, my savings and investment choices revolve around what paints the best future for them.

The lesson here is not every “rule” of personal finance applies to every situation. Instead, you should figure out what your own goals are and then seek out advice on how to make those goals actually happen.

Good luck!

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