Am I a Bad Parent if I Save for My Retirement Instead of My Child’s College?

By Damon Poeter

In an ideal world, parents can save for their retirement while also setting money aside in a college fund for their kids. But many of us struggle just to invest the recommended 10–15% of annual income in a retirement fund, let alone save for our children’s future educational needs.

So should we feel guilty about saving for our retirement first? The short answer is no, says Matthew Angel, a USAA advice director and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner.

No One Will Give You a Loan for Retirement

“Put your own oxygen mask on first,” he says. “If people don’t save for retirement now, they have a really hard time getting started later. And if you’re not going to spend less today, you’re probably not going to do it tomorrow.”

Want some tools and strategies to help you save for education and avoid drowning in student loan debt? Get the help you need through USAA Education and Training.

Life: Costly and Growing Costlier

Both retirement and a college education are becoming increasingly expensive. If you go by standard projections for a 1.5–2% annual inflation rate, a couple retiring in 10 years and hoping to live on $50,000 annually for 25 years after retirement would need to have nearly $800,000 saved or available via Social Security and other benefits.

Assuming a 3% annual increase in college costs, a student starting at a state college in 2028 would be looking at a $120,000 bill for four years. A degree from a private college could cost more than double or even triple that amount. The annual increase in tuition over the past 10 years has been about 5%, so those costs could climb.

What if You Don’t Save for Retirement?

The main reason to prioritize retirement over a college fund is that there are fewer options to fund your golden years than there are to pay for college, Angel says.

But another reason is that kicking the can down the road on retirement savings could undo the effort you made in paying for your children’s education.

“One of the best gifts you can give to your kids is a secure set of parents. If you wind up becoming a financial burden to them later in life, that’s a problem,” he says.

Prioritize Retirement, Strategize for College

Affording retirement and a college education for your kids pose daunting challenges. The good news is there are more options for paying for college than simply dipping into savings. These include:

  • Opting for community college. The cost savings of spending two years at a community college before finishing up at a public, in-state university are considerable. A student starting at an average four-year state college this fall could expect to spend around $83,000 in tuition, room and board, and other costs by the end of senior year, according to The College Board. Starting off at a community college while living at home would save nearly $35,000 over four years.
  • Applying for scholarships and grants. Thousands of college scholarships are available to students, funded by “schools, employers, individuals, private companies, nonprofits, communities, religious groups, and professional and social organizations,” according to the Department of Education. Financial aid from the government is also available.
  • Joining the military. Service carries the promise of financial aid toward a college education. This goes for not just full-time, active-duty service members but for reservists and National Guard members as well.
  • Working through college. Students attempting to “pay as you go” fully or partially might take longer to finish college, but they’ll also enter the workforce unburdened by the overwhelming debt so many of their peers carry.
  • Taking out student loans. The least optimal way to pay for a college education because of the future debt incurred, student loans are nevertheless used by hundreds of thousands of students.

Your Heart’s in the Right Place … But Also Use Your Brain

“Emotion is critical for any good financial plan. The emotional desire to provide for kids is really strong, and that’s a good thing,” Angel says. “But when you set your personal finances up well, including funding your retirement, you are providing for your kids’ future, too.”

Helping your children with college is an admirable goal. But if you really want to provide for your kids, you also need to pay down debts and invest for your own retirement so you’re in a better position to help them longer and more consistently.

Ready to start planning your retirement in earnest? Use USAA Retirement Planning Services to find out where you stand now and where you need to get to financially.

Matthew Angel serves as an advice director at USAA, focusing on the personal finance tenets of short-term saving and home advice. Matthew holds professional credentials including a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ designation, AAMS® and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Matthew’s history at USAA includes seven years serving members as a financial planner and leading teams of financial professionals to help members achieve financial security. Outside of work, Matthew enjoys hunting and riding motorcycles, and is a proud husband and father to four kids.


Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. owns the certification marks CFP® and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ in the United States, which it awards to individuals who successfully complete the CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

The information contained is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for obtaining professional financial advice. Please thoroughly research and seek professional advice before acting on any information you may have found in this article. This article in no way attempts to provide financial advice that relates to all personal circumstances.

USAA means United Services Automobile Association and its affiliates. Financial advice provided by USAA Financial Advisors, Inc. (FAI), a registered broker-dealer, USAA Investment Management Company (IMCO), a registered broker-dealer and investment adviser, and for insurance, USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, Inc. (known as USAA Financial Insurance Agency in California, License # OE36312). Investment products and services offered by IMCO and FAI.  Life insurance and annuities provided by USAA Life Insurance Co., San Antonio, TX, and in NY by USAA Life Insurance Co of New York, Highland falls, NY. Other life and health insurance from select companies offered through USAA Life General Agency, Inc. (known in CA (license #0782231) and in NY as USAA Health and Life Insurance Agency). Banking products offered by USAA Federal Savings Bank and USAA Savings Bank, both FDIC insured. Trust services provided by USAA Federal Savings Bank.

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Tags - Retirement, Saving


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