Guest post by Jacoba Urist

For most of us, the thought of choosing ourselves at the expense of our children is pretty hard to imagine. And yet, financial planners tell us that's exactly what we should do when it comes to saving for retirement or college. If you can only put money aside for one or the other, today, they vote for the retirement fund every time.

Here's the logic: There are lots of ways to cover your kid's tuition financial aid, scholarships, student loans. But similar options just don't exist for your golden years. Personal finance experts liken it to those flight safety announcements. You're supposed to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help a child with theirs, no matter how counterintuitive that might feel as a parent.

Then there's the reality. Most mothers I spoke to say that, if push came to shove, they're not so sure they could actually put their oxygen mask on first. And the same goes for retirement. You may know it makes good financial sense to fund your 401(k) over a college savings plan, but most parents react from a deeply emotional place when it comes to their child's education.

I know I heard about my father running to the bank the day I was born, in a blizzard, to open my college fund, long before I ever thought about a having a family of my own. But it really doesn't have to be so black or white, one account or the other. There are plenty of ways to help your family get closer to both of its long-term financial goals, even if you aren't able to sock away as much as you'd like for retirement and college right now.

Look At Your Credit Cards

Everyone agrees it doesn't make sense to carry big credit card balances. Pay off high-interest cards before you fund a Roth or a 529 account. There's no use getting single digit interest on your savings, while paying double digit interest on your cards.

And then focus on keepings things off of them in the future. It's hard with a growing family. But the less high interest you have to pay, the more wiggle room you have every month for your retirement or your kid's college fund.

Look in the Toy Box

What grandparent doesn't like to buy gifts? But try asking them to hold off on that new doll or dump truck and make a special contribution to their grandchild's diploma instead. Be upfront about your dilemma.

Explain that $25 or $50 on special occasions will add up to thousands when the tuition bill comes around. Assure them that they will get "credit" down the road (Grandma and Grandpa Johnson paid for your first semester!) and that your child will surely appreciate the gift much more as an adult than, say, a train table today.

Look Ahead

FinAid, FAFSA4caster, and the U.S. Department of Education's website are all great places to start. Understanding the cost of college, the kinds of loans available, and how financial aid is calculated go a long way to helping your family plan for the future.

For one thing, financial aid formulas don't count retirement savings in "total parental assets." Even if you a have a million dollars squirreled away in that 401(k), a school may still pitch in. And now, you can withdraw money from an IRA penalty-free to pay for certain higher education expenses (like textbooks and the tuition bill). So at worst, you're just hedging your bets, and you can do both: save for retirement today and use the money for college, if you need to, later.

 

Jacoba Urist, Esq. is a lawyer, writer, and mom in Manhattan. She's currently working on a book, "The Happiest Parent," about estate planning and personal finance, specifically for parents. Over the past year, she's interviewed hundreds of mothers and researched (almost) every aspect of protecting your family's long-term well-being, and she came to one overwhelming conclusion: The Happiest Parent is the one who plans for the future no matter how hard it may seem today.

Jacoba earned her Juris Doctorate from New York University in 2002 as well as her Masters in Taxation in 2004. She also has a Masters from The Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies where she studied economic and regulatory issues. She's practiced at one of the country's top law firms and written on a wide range of topics for legal professionals.

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This post was included in the Top Personal Finance Posts of the Week blog carnival and the Best of Money Carnival.