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Saving for Retirement and a Child's Education at the Same Time

You want to retire comfortably when the time comes. You also want to help your child go to college. So how do you juggle the two? The truth is, saving for your retirement and your child's education at the same time can be a challenge. But take heart—you may be able to reach both goals if you make some smart choices now.

Know what your financial needs are

The first step is to determine what your financial needs are for each goal. Answering the following questions can help you get started:

For retirement:

For college:

Many on-line calculators are available to help you predict your retirement income needs and your child's college funding needs.

Figure out what you can afford to put aside each month

After you know what your financial needs are, the next step is to determine what you can afford to put aside each month. To do so, you'll need to prepare a detailed family budget that lists all of your income and expenses. Keep in mind, though, that the amount you can afford may change from time to time as your circumstances change. Once you've come up with a dollar amount, you'll need to decide how to divvy up your funds.

Retirement takes priority

Though college is certainly an important goal, you should probably focus on your retirement if you have limited funds. With generous corporate pensions mostly a thing of the past, the burden is primarily on you to fund your retirement. But if you wait until your child is in college to start saving, you'll miss out on years of tax-deferred growth and compounding of your money. Remember, your child can always attend college by taking out loans (or maybe even with scholarships), but there's no such thing as a retirement loan!

If possible, save for your retirement and your child's college at the same time

Ideally, you'll want to try to pursue both goals at the same time. The more money you can squirrel away for college bills now, the less money you or your child will need to borrow later. Even if you can allocate only a small amount to your child's college fund, say $50 or $100 a month, you might be surprised at how much you can accumulate over many years. For example, if you saved $100 every month and earned 8 percent, you'd have $18,415 in your child's college fund after 10 years. (This example is for illustrative purposes only and does not represent a specific investment.)

If you're unsure how to allocate your funds between retirement and college, a professional financial planner may be able to help you. This person can also help you select the best investments for each goal. Remember, just because you're pursuing both goals at the same time doesn't necessarily mean that the same investments will be appropriate. Each goal should be treated independently.

Help! I can't meet both goals

If the numbers say that you can't afford to educate your child or retire with the lifestyle you expected, you'll have to make some sacrifices. Here are some things you can do:

Can retirement accounts be used to save for college?

Yes. Should they be? Probably not. Most financial planners discourage paying for college with funds from a retirement account; they also discourage using retirement funds for a child's college education if doing so will leave you with no funds in your retirement years. However, you can certainly tap your retirement accounts to help pay the college bills if you need to. With IRAs, you can withdraw money penalty free for college expenses, even if you're under age 59½ (though there may be income tax consequences for the money you withdraw). But with an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k) or 403(b), you'll generally pay a 10 percent penalty on any withdrawals made before you reach age 59½ (age 55 in some cases), even if the money is used for college expenses. You may also be subject to a six month suspension if you make a hardship withdrawal. There may be income tax consequences, as well. (Check with your plan administrator to see what withdrawal options are available to you in your employer-sponsored retirement plan.)

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