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Yes, you can save for your kids’ college and your retirement

You can use money that once went to

You can use money that once went to student or car loan repayments to add to your savings. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / Nuthawut Somsuk

How can parents, who have limited resources, save for both college for their kids and retirement for themselves?

  • Get your priorities straight

A recent NerdWallet study conducted online by Harris Poll found that millennial parents (ages 18-34) are prioritizing saving for retirement and college at similar rates. Sixty-one percent of respondents called retirement a top long-term priority; 54 percent said the same of college.

Retirement should have a much wider lead, though, for a litany of reasons. Most notably, those student loans you know so well aren’t an option for retirement. Neither are scholarships, grants or work-study programs — aside from, well, work.

You want to help your kids avoid your debt-riddled fate, but it’s OK — financially prudent, even — to put college savings on the back burner until you’re saving enough for retirement.

  • Set specific goals

Saving “enough” for retirement generally means putting aside 10 percent to 15 percent of your income each year. A retirement calculator will give you a personalized recommendation. Even if you can’t meet it right now, it’s helpful to know what you’re working toward.

A college savings goal can be harder to target, but Fidelity Investments has a good rule of thumb: Multiply your child’s current age by $2,000. The result is what you should have invested as of now if you want to cover half the cost of a four-year public college.

  • Turn debt into savings

It might not seem like it, but those student loan payments — and payments on other debts like car loans — will end eventually. When that happens, you can use the money you were putting toward debt payments to amp up your savings.

The same goes when you meet other savings goals. Let’s say you’ve been building up a house down payment or emergency fund. When you hit your target, pop some Champagne. Then direct the dollars you were allocating toward that goal into your college savings account, your retirement account or both.

  • Consider a multitasking account

In most cases, it’s worth compartmentalizing your saving. That means putting college money in a 529 college savings plan and retirement money in a 401(k) or individual retirement account.

But to straddle both goals, consider a Roth IRA. Because you make contributions with after-tax dollars, you can pull them out at any time, for any reason, without paying tax or penalties. Roths also allow early distributions of investment earnings for qualified education expenses with no penalty, though you may be taxed.

If we all committed to increasing our savings rate each time we got a raise or a higher paying job, meeting our financial goals still wouldn’t be easy — but it would certainly be easier. Commit to this if you’re saving for both college and retirement. Another opportunity to save more comes when you reduce your expenses. When your kids leave day care or preschool for public elementary school, you could save hundreds of dollars each month.

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