When Saving For Your Kids' College Is the Wrong Move

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Moms Blog

Kids are expensive. I don’t really know how people do it anymore. My wife and I did the math and we pay the equivalent of two University of California educations right now, raising a three year old and six month old. No wonder the US birth rate just hit a record low.

I work with a lot of young families who are in a similar situation. Usually one of the top objectives is to save for their children’s education. This is admirable, but it doesn’t always make sense.

My advice is to take care of yourself first!

Here is a quick litmus test. If you don’t check off these boxes, you probably shouldn’t save for your kids’ college, at least not yet.

ロ No major student loans or debt other than a mortgage

Have student loans? Don’t even think about saving for your kids’ college until you are at least in a financial position to pay them off in full. (It may make sense to hold onto lower interest loans, such as anything below 5%, but you still want to have the ability to pay them off.) The kids can always take out loans for college, but unfortunately you can’t take out loans for retirement.

ロ Emergency fund in place (3 – 6 months of living expenses in a bank account)

ロ Maxing out your contributions to an employer 401k or equivalent

You can contribute up to $18,500 in 2018 in an employer 401k, which doesn’t include employer matches. This is one of the fastest ways to grow your liquid net worth, so take advantage of it! Once you and your spouse have checked the retirement savings box, then it may make sense to save for your kids’ college.

Gift of Education

If you’re not ready to start saving, but don’t want to wait, consider having grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends help fund a 529 college savings plan in lieu of birthday presents and holiday gifts. Certain plans, like The Vanguard 529 plan, offer an easy option of allowing people to gift money. If your family is like mine, then your kids probably don’t need any more plastic toys that they’ll be interested in for five minutes before moving on to the next one. Have your friends and family give them the gift of education, instead.

Everyone’s Different

Don’t worry about how much your friends are saving for their kids’ college. You’ve already given your kid the gift of life and they get to grow up in one of coolest (and most expensive) parts of the country.

Take care of yourself first! Don’t forgo your retirement or other goals just to pay for your kids’ education. Invest in yourself, then, if you have money left over, feel free to set up an education fund. It really should be on the lower end of your financial objectives.