Retirement vs. College: Which Should Be Your Saving Priority?

If you have children, the decision of whether you should set aside all of your extra cash in retirement accounts or if you should prioritize saving for their college expenses can be a tricky one. In this Fool Live video clip, recorded on Nov. 3, Certified Financial PlannersĀ® Matt Frankel and Robert Brokamp discuss what parents should keep in mind as they decide where to save.

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Matt Frankel: The longer one is Dave’s, it says “Retirement and college?” All the research says to save for retirement first then save for college. But I can’t find anything specific for when you make the switch from only retirement to both. “Have you seen any tangible guidelines to help understand when save for retirement first can end?” Well, first of all, I would say it’s not only retirement. I save for both my retirement and my kids accounts, their 529s. But I definitely prioritize my retirement savings.

The reason I do it is because it’s easier to pay for your kid’s college from your retirement accounts than it is to pay for your retirement from your kid’s college accounts. It’s like a one-way street. IRA’s especially have that exemption where you can withdraw money early for any reason and for any amount early in order to pay for higher education expenses. There is no exception in 529, unless you were drawn to pay for your own retirement expenses.

It’s not just that your own retirement needs to be a priority. It’s that you can effectively use your own retirement accounts to fund your children’s college if you need to. A Roth IRA in particularly makes a great college investor. It’s essentially the same tax structure as a 529 plan in the after-tax in terms of withdrawals are tax-free. But if you don’t end up meeting the money for college, you could just use it for your own retirement. IRAs serve both purposes, whereas college accounts generally only serve one, 529s have some state retirement or state tax benefits.

If you live in a state that has an income tax, chances are you’re states 529 plan your contributions are state tax deductible. They have a little extra tax benefit, which is why I contribute to both my own retirement and successful accounts for my kids. But if there’s not enough in those accounts, it’s easy enough for me to tap into an IRA to make up the difference. That was my longer answer to do.

Robert Brokamp: Yeah, just make sure everyone’s clear on what Matt was talking about. You use your IRA for qualified higher education expenses. You don’t have to worry about that 10% early distribution penalty you would normally pay if you’re younger than 59.5, you still owe taxes. But as that was pointing out, any money you contribute to a Roth IRA comes out tax and penalty-free and contributions come out first.

Now, once you start taking earnings out of our Roth IRA, then it gets a little bit more complicated. But way back in like 2001 or 2002, I wrote an article about how the Roth IRA is almost you can use it as an emergency fund because it can be so flexible. Just so you know that you cannot do the same thing with the 401(k) or 403(b). You cannot use those to pay for college and avoid that 10% early penalty. I know that. I say that because I know someone who thought they could, took money out of other 403(b) and then ended up having to pay that 10% penalty even though they thought they were exempt because they used it to pay for college.

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