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How to manage saving for college, and retirement

With more people becoming parents at later ages,

With more people becoming parents at later ages, college bills often hit around the same time as traditional retirement age for some families. Navigating both goals becomes trickier. Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / BackyardProduction

Is saving for college getting in the way of saving for retirement?

If so, look for new resources at work, leave the Roth IRA alone and scale back the caviar dreams for both goals, financial experts say.

With more people becoming parents at later ages, college bills are hitting home just before traditional retirement age for many families, so navigating both goals becomes trickier.

Meanwhile, the debt is piling up: More than one in four retirement-plan savers over 55 was carrying student-loan debt in a recent Fidelity Investments survey of its plan participants.

Financial advisers and college-planning specialists have been telling parents to prioritize retirement over college savings, often noting that you can’t borrow for retirement the way you can borrow for college.

Like a lot of parents, though, Cindy Richards and Scott Fisher wanted to get their kids through college without saddling themselves or the kids with loans that had to be paid back for decades.

So about six years ago, when their oldest child was 16, the couple scaled way back on retirement savings and socked as much as they could into their existing 529 college savings plans. That child just graduated from college, and their youngest has two more years to go before they’ll begin saving aggressively again for retirement, said Richards, 57.

But they also pursued academic scholarships and financial aid grants and relocated from a close-in Chicago suburb to lower-cost Chesterton, Indiana, downsizing their home as the nest emptied. And neither is looking to retire anytime soon.

“I never expected to have a retirement like my parents, where you’re working and then at 65 playing golf,” said Richards, a journalist who works as a writer and editor for an insurance firm and who produces the website TravelingMom.com.

Even though they compromised some retirement savings for college, their plan works because they’ve adjusted expectations and are planning to continue working, said Scott Thoma, principal, client needs research for investment firm Edward Jones.

“Making those trade-offs and saving aggressively for one goal while easing up on the other is fine if they’re comfortable working longer,” said Thoma. “Where people get into trouble is when they get overwhelmed by both goals and just try to muddle through.”

Another of Thoma’s pet peeves is using Roth IRAs for education because Roth contributions can be withdrawn penalty-free before retirement age. Clients who do it tend to falsely think they have more money than they actually do because it’s serving two goals, he said.

  • If college is getting in the way of your retirement, look for new resources at work, leave the Roth IRA alone and scale back the caviar dreams for both goals.
  • Parents should prioritize retirement over college savings: you can’t borrow for retirement the way you can borrow for college.
  • If you have compromised some retirement savings for college, adjust your expectations — and plan to continue working longer.

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