Don't Let a College Savings Plan Crack Your Retirement Nest Egg - A Guide to Balancing College and Retirement Plans
Two of the largest savings plans consumers need to fund and manage in their lifetime are saving for their child's college and for their personal retirement. These are plans that take time to adequately build, but one doesn't have to negate the other. Both can be managed successfully and simultaneously through early planning.
"Above all, start saving for both as soon as possible," said Donny Rogers, president of Arvest Bank Trust. "From the moment you get your first job to the moment you learn you're going to be a parent, set aside money and let it grow."
Rogers says the balancing act begins with determining how much of the college expense parents want to fund and what other big-ticket expenses they may also cover for their children.
"It's smart to focus on saving for college, but the reality is that there are a few other large expenses that require long-term budgeting," Rogers said. "If you plan on buying your teenager their first car or paying for a daughter's wedding, you need to factor those expenses into your budget so you segment your savings plans across the board. I always tell parents that it's fair to require some 'sweat equity' from their kids so they contribute to the expense of paying for a car or shouldering a portion of any student loans. There's no expectation that parents pay 100 percent of all of those expenses."
A 529 Plan offers a tax-free savings option for college that is specifically earmarked for post-secondary education. These state-specific plans have different rules of engagement but typically can be used to fund expenses from tuition to housing to other necessary items for school. Significant supplemental funding is also available in the form of academic, athletic and arts scholarships.
While you can borrow for college expenses, you can't do the same for retirement savings. Therefore, it's critical to begin saving early for your retirement nest egg and to budget in parallel with other savings priorities. Maximizing an employer's 401(k) matching option puts "free money" in your account. In the event you need to adjust your savings more heavily toward college, be sure not to reduce your retirement savings below the level of employer matching. It's recommended that 10 percent of your income be allocated toward retirement every year.
"Regardless of how well you plan, there will inevitably be change and the need for adjustments along the way, and that's perfectly normal," Rogers said. "Consistency will reward your efforts when you need to utilize those funds."
The so-called "catch-up plan" that allows individuals age 50 and over to make extra contributions can help consumers make up for lost ground during the saving process, once college and major expenses have been paid for, but Rogers advises customers not to lean too heavily on that option. He says the number of variables involved in retirement planning can sometimes cause consumers to miss significant savings. Those may include the length of time one plans to work, or is able to work; the kind of lifestyle one wants to lead after retirement; the security of their career and other potential factors or risks.
In addition, the rate of inflation and the rising cost of college tuition will affect how much of an impact savings for college and retirement have on the larger family budget, making that early foundation and steady savings plan even more important in the long run.