It’s a pretty standard accepted practice for parents to sock away money to pay for their children’s college expenses. But Suze Orman raises a good point in a mostly unrelated article:
Instead, a good financial advisor will assess whether you should be saving for college at all. If you aren’t already maxing out on all your own retirement savings options, or you have a big chunk of high-interest credit card debt, you have no business putting your kids’ college costs ahead of getting your own finances in good shape.
A financial advisor who has your best interests at heart — and your kids’ for that matter — will explain that if you retire without sufficient income to live on, or in serious debt, you’re going to be a financial burden to your children.
This is kind of an obvious point, but it’s become pretty much the standard for all parents to try to save money for their children’s college expenses. My suggestion is that there are a lot of other reasons why you might not want to, and you should think through this instead of assuming it’s your duty:
1) Student loans are easy to get. True, college is more and more expensive. But it’s gotten to the point where unless you’re making a ton of money, it’s a big sacrifice for a normal family to save the hundred thousand or so that it takes to get through a four-year private school. But consider the alternative – these days you can get student loans for almost the full amount at low interest rates.
2) Multiple children make it a lot harder. Are you really going to save $100,000 for each kid? They’re going to expect roughly equal assistance, and you may not be able to give it.
3) There are cheaper options. In my experience, in going to graduate school you should pick the most prestigious school, even if it’s more expensive. That’s assuming you are going into a career where you can pay back the loans – if you’re getting an art history PhD, it’s not a good idea. But for your undergraduate degree, I don’t think it matters all that much if you went to a state school versus an elite private university. Admission to graduate school will weigh your test scores a lot more heavily than the brand name. There’s some benefit to it – but I’m not sure it’s worth the cost in the long run if you really can’t afford the more expensive school. The state version may be a few thousand a year versus $30,000.
4) They don’t have to go for four years. Graduating in three is easy. That cuts down on the expected expenses by 25%, immediately.
5) You may genuinely not be able to afford it. If you aren’t saving 10% of your money for your own retirement, minimum, you shouldn’t be saving to pay for your kid’s college. Sounds harsh, but think about the ways the world is changing. The traditional safety net in old age was having your kids take care of you. You saved no money, you had fourteen kids, and a few of them lived and were successful enough that you could live with them when you got older (if you got older). That doesn’t work anymore. You may only have one or two kids – and they may not WANT to take care of you in old age. It’s not as normal to have a random grandparent living in the house. Your kids may die, or get sick or disabled, or be shiftless bums who can’t even take care of themselves, let alone you. With only two shots at it, your retirement just isn’t safe that way. You have to be prepared to pay your own way. And if you’re on an average income, it will be very hard to do that when saving for college for multiple children.
6) You can make smaller investments that will pay off down the line by reducing college expenses. That $400 SAT prep course could get your kid a scholarship, and then you’re saving tons of money. Those Advanced Placement courses? $50 to take the test – and eliminate $5,000 worth of college expenses by not having to take another course at full price. Making the cheap investments down the line will help hold down costs to a level where your children can manage it on their own.
7) Some kids treat college as if it’s just a four-year party. You won’t know until it happens, and you may not even know then. If your kid isn’t assuming some of the responsibility themselves, they may not worry too much about partying on your dime. If they’re paying for some of it, or taking out loans, it’s a different story. Why pay a ton of money for someone to get drunk every weekend and get a credential at the end?
What about the reasons why you might want to save for your kids? There are some situations where I think that hands-down it’s a good idea. Here are some of those:
1) You make so much money that you wouldn’t even notice it missing. If you CAN pay for your kid’s college expenses, why not? It’s not a bad thing to do it. Making sure they get a good education and a head start on life is something all parents want – which is why so many pony up. If you’re not going to miss the money, then I’d go ahead and do it. If you’re worried about personal responsibility, then condition the checks on good grades (or more realistically, condition any money given for “fun”).
2) You make enough money that it hurts your kid’s ability to get financial aid. This is true to some extent – parental salary can reduce eligibility for student loans if it’s too high. You’re damaging your child’s ability to get these loans, and if you’ve got enough income that your kid can’t qualify for financial aid, you probably can figure out a way to pay for at least some of their expenses.
3) It’s so cheap that you can afford it easily. If little Susie goes to the $2500 a year state school, then why not pay for it? You don’t have to make a big savings effort, you just have to cut back a little.
4) You save for part of the costs, but not all of them. I think this is ultimately the best approach. Most people just can’t save the full amount it would take at the most expensive college. And in reality you’re making a rough guess when you make this decision. You may have a four year old, and you have to decide whether they need enough money to go to Harvard or junior college. You just don’t know. I would try to save a smaller fund that would help them get started. $10,000 or $15,000 in today’s money seems about right. It won’t pay for everything – but it will give them a guaranteed minimum that if they pick a cheap school, they’ll be able to go. If they want something more, then they can borrow, get a scholarship, or work. Those aren’t bad options – they may not all be viable for any particular person. But there will be a lot of ways out there to supplement the money you’ve put aside – and in the end, most people are going to have to bear at least some of the responsibility themselves. All you can do is try to put your kids on a steady footing when they first go out on their own.
Discuss this in the Free the Drones Forums.