Should you be paying for your kids’ college tuition?
As a parent who only wants the best for your kids, you might feel obligated to pay for their college tuition.
You want to give them the best possible start to their adult life, with a good education, but without the heavy burden of student loan debt.
However, if your retirement fund is lacking, this can put you in a tough situation. Your financial circumstances may require sacrificing one for the other, because there’s not enough money (or time) to save for both.
If you’re experiencing stress about whether you should be paying for your kids’ college education or saving for retirement, this post will give you several reasons to consider putting your retirement first.
That might be a tough pill to swallow. You might even feel like a total failure as a parent if you don’t foot the tuition bill.
The reality is, if you don’t have enough to support yourself throughout retirement, that burden may fall on your kids. And, the income they’ll make once they’ve graduated and built a career could be spent taking care of you.
Is that what you really want?
As harsh as it may sound to put the financial responsibility of a higher education on your kids, what’s worse is limiting their future opportunities because they have to support you in your old age.
If you don’t have the funds to fully fund your retirement and pay for college, then you need to put your future first.
Your children have youth and years on their side. They have options to get the education they need.
In fact, paying for their own tuition could teach them some powerful lessons that will serve them well in life.
Keep reading to learn 9 reasons why it’s okay to not pay for your kids’ college education.
First: Why I’m not paying for my kids’ college
When our oldest son was 3 years old, we opened up a 529 college savings account. For 15 years we added what we could , which wasn’t much – usually $50 a month, sometimes more – but by the time he was ready to go to college there was a good chunk of change in there.
So when our first went off to live in a dorm and attend his first semester at a public university, we were more than willing to foot the bill. It’s our responsibility, right?
We always planned to pay for our kids’ college education.
For me and my husband, it was basically “what parents do” because our parents did the same for us. We wanted to be like our parents (who, by the way, had more than enough to afford it).
Well, that belief went up in smoke when our son told us he failed 3 out of his 4 classes. So, yeah. About $10K down the drain.
At that point we told him he was on his own. We didn’t have that kind of money to waste or gamble. He would have to get a job and take out student loans.
Since then, he’s switched from a university to a community college, changed his major, held a full time job, fully supports himself, and has never been more responsible than he is right now. He knows what he wants to do, he takes his classes seriously, and he has a plan for his life.
He’s also extremely thankful when he gets in a bind and Mom & Dad help him out.
In other words, he’s really grown up a lot since he started paying for it. So, I’ve had a change of heart.
I no longer feel like it’s my responsibility to pay for my kids’ college education. But even more so, I know I’m allowing for valuable life lessons if I don’t.
Sometimes it’s hard, as parents, to not eliminate struggle and hardship from our kids’ lives. We want to give them a clear, easy path to success. After all, they’re going to experience plenty of failure on their own.
But, we really do them a disservice when we don’t allow the tough times to shape their character. It’s important that they learn how to fight for what they want – and figure out what’s worth fighting for.
After much thought, I realized there are several reasons why it’s okay – maybe even *best* – to put college tuition on my kids’ shoulders.
In fact, if you’re a late saver, I encourage you to consider doing the same.
Here are 9 reasons why it’s okay to not pay for your children’s college education.
#1 Your priority needs to be your own financial independence
You might think this is selfish. But, it’s really not.
In fact, one of the best ways of ensuring a bright future for your kids is for you to remain financially independent. Putting your retirement savings ahead of their college costs can actually give them *more* opportunities in life.
If you use up your savings now to pay for their college, then you’ll have less later when you retire. This means there’s a greater chance of running out of money before you die.
And, after you’ve depleted your savings at 80+ years old – when you’re too tired or too old or too sick to hold a job – usually it’s the kids that step in to take care of Mom or Dad (or both).
This leaves less money for them to pursue financial opportunities to increase savings for themselves and their own families.
This can start a generational cycle of the kids supporting their parents in old age.
Also, your future expenses are unknown. You may get sick and need expensive treatments. You may need to go into a nursing home. These possibilities leave an even heavier financial burden on your kids if you don’t have the resources to cover them yourself.
However, your kids have control over how much they’ll pay for college. They have choices to minimize costs and reduce expenses. There are even ways to get a college education for free!
But, with the golden days of company pensions fading quickly, we are increasingly responsible for our own retirement. There are no handouts. Plus, retirement and healthcare expenses are only going up.
According to a 2019 T. Rowe Price survey, 83% of adult children who act as caregivers for their aging parents say their retirement plans are impacted because of this responsibility. And, 74% of these caregivers say they experience financial strain.
You must put your financial future first.
It’s the best decision for you *and* your kids.
My husband and I have been diligent about building our 401(k), but we’re still far short of the nest egg we’d be comfortable retiring on. We have about 15 more years before we even consider entering retirement, and between now and then we need to make our savings the top priority.
I would prefer my kids make their own choices about college based on their responsibility to pay for it, rather than choosing between the three of them who is going to take care of Mom & Dad because we don’t have enough money to take care of ourselves. I don’t even want to think about the financial, mental and emotional burden that could possibly be to them.
If you feel some guilt over past financial mistakes, then I encourage you to work through that. Have some heart-to-heart talks with your kids, and let them know that you don’t want to be a financial burden to them later in life.
And, take heart in knowing that you have other ways you can help your children pay for their college expenses. Keep reading for alternative ways to support your kids’ higher education.
#2 You can still help them save money
On one college visit we went to, the financial aid advisor told all the parents in attendance that looking for scholarships is like a part-time job. Your child must set aside time every week researching potential scholarship money, keeping a record of what’s applied for, staying organized with the process, and making sure all of the rules are being followed for each application.
This could be overwhelming for some teens – especially those with “senioritis”. By their 12th year of school, a lot of kids are just done. It can be tough to be diligent with something that doesn’t provide any benefit until another year. Talk about delayed gratification – which most 17-year olds have not yet developed.
This is one way you can support your kids during this process.
Even if you can’t pay for your kids’ college education. you can still help them with the research, the rules, and staying organized. There is a lot to learn about how the application system works and the best strategies to use, and you can give them guidance in the process.
You can help them think of the right questions to ask, figure out the right person to talk to, and search for those “under the radar” scholarships that your teen may not think of.
You can also help them look for grants, navigate the student loan process (including FAFSA), and offer suggestions for cutting expenses.
For example, many colleges now require freshmen to live on campus for their first year. This would add at least $5,000 to the bill. However, you can encourage your child to go to community college for the first year or two – where she can save on tuition and bypass the dorm experience (& expense). Then, she can live at home for free, if she decides to transfer to a local university.
Also, most teens don’t yet have a grasp of what college costs over 4 years. They’re only steered by the name, the reputation, the location, the programs offered, what friends are going there, etc. Everything but how much money it’s going to take.
You can help your kids consider why and how lower-cost universities can be a reasonable and wise choice while still getting a good college education.
#3 They’ll learn invaluable lessons about financial responsibility
It’s tough to be a grown up. The transition from carefree teenager to responsible young adult can be plagued with difficulties, mistakes, and regrets – some that take a long time to get over.
It can take many years to figure out how to “adult” because wisdom and maturity require a lot of time to grow.
However, it’s amazing how motivated we can be when under pressure!
When there is no safety net, your kids can learn quickly the importance of making good choices and the value of working hard.
There is little room for foolish activity and squandering of time. Needs are quickly distinguished from wants.
It’s difficult to watch, but I believe it’s important for kids to go through the struggle. They don’t have to figure it out on their own – as parents, we can help them with that – but they should do it on their own.
It’s like Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich once said :
“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.”
I want my children to grow up into adults who have strength of character and conviction, and I hope through their struggles they will learn important lessons that will serve them well throughout their lives.
By giving your kids the responsibility to pay for their college tuition, you’re helping them develop the motivation and ability to make wise decisions, such as:
- Being purposeful with their money
- Taking their higher education seriously
- Exploring different areas of study before investing in a 4-year degree
- Choosing a college that not only meets their educational needs, but also doesn’t exceed what they can afford after graduation
- Spending the time necessary to figure out if college is really for them (I took off 5 years between high school and college!)
- Considering careers that aren’t just fun and exciting, but can also support a family, a mortgage, and anything else that fits in their vision of a successful life
- Learning the value of a dollar
You can be there to offer guidance and advice. But, give them the opportunity and space to learn from their own personal struggles.
Related post: How To Catch Up On Your Retirement Savings
#4 They’ll learn to keep a college education in perspective
As parents, we all want our children to succeed and have the best chances of having a fulfilling life. Many of us think college is the safest choice; some of us think it’s the best.
And, in some instances, it is. But not in every instance.
I used to have the expectation that all my kids would go to college, and that just fed into my belief that paying for it was up to me. After all, if I was telling my kids they are going and don’t have a choice, I felt it was my responsibility to make it happen.
However, I’ve since had to challenge my own rigid thinking and reconsider what was best for our kids.
First, the decision has to be theirs, not ours.
If your kid was not a great student in high school (like ours) then he’s not going to change his ways just because college is “the next thing to do”. He has to have his own emotional investment in that decision, and that doesn’t happen when he feels there’s no other choice.
It’s important to me (now) that my kids know going to college is not a requirement for Dad & Mom to believe in their success. Is it our wish? Yes, because college can be a great experience and open doors later in life. But, the decision has to be theirs.
Second, they should be guided by their hearts first, not their heads. Not every career path depends on a four-year degree, so don’t let them limit themselves to only the choices that do.
My son was naturally good at math in high school, so he thought the best choice was to become an engineer. When he failed calculus his first semester in college he realized he didn’t have the drive to push through the higher levels that didn’t come naturally to him. He decided he wanted to instead pursue something that allowed him to be outdoors in nature, something he loves to do, so he switched his focus to becoming a park ranger. Will he need a four-year degree? Yes – but now he has an emotional investment in his decision and he’s working hard to achieve his goal.
Third, they’ll realize that college is *not* a place to “figure things out”, or “find myself”. Knowing they’ll have to shoulder the expense, the chances are greater that they’ll take the time necessary to have these experiences before they enroll for classes that cost $1,000 a pop.
If they follow your advice, they’ll discover they can do this *without* going into debt.
Even better yet, they’ll understand you can “find yourself” while living at home, working a full time job, and saving up for tuition.
#5 You can pay for and support their pre-college education
Even if your kids go to public school, there are still expenses for helping them get the most out of it.
Here are just a few pre-college expenses that will support your kids’ higher education:
- AP (Advanced Placement) exam fees
- Extracurricular activity fees
- Private tutors
- Educational trips
- SAT/ACT study books and exams
- Musical instrument costs and maintenance
- Athletic and concert uniforms
- CLEP exams that allow them to bypass expensive college courses
Then there’s the college visits which may require airplane tickets and a hotel room. College application fees add to the rising total.
If you have the finances to support these expenses, they’re all a great way to support your children’s higher education goals.
Aside from a financial standpoint, you can also support them in their high school education by attending all teacher conferences, holding them accountable to their responsibilities as students, and encouraging good grades.
Attending their sports games, music concerts, plays, and award ceremonies are important ways to support their interests and encourage their progress. Be your kids’ biggest fan, and let them know how much you believe in their abilities.
#6 Financial responsibilities can build character
Taking on a huge debt in your own name is 1) a choice, and 2) a *huge* responsibility with long term consequences if it’s not paid back. It takes some serious consideration to sign the dotted line and commit to years of payments.
Many life lessons in adulthood don’t come packed with the grace and patience you’ll find in “teachable moments” from Dad & Mom. Creditors and bosses don’t care if you didn’t “feel” like being responsible, or if you “forgot” the deadline for that payment or project.
Nope, feelings and memories are rarely considered when it comes to real life responsibilities. What does matter is reliability, integrity, and commitment (just to name a few).
Building genuine character happens in challenging experiences over time, such as:
- Having to make sacrifices
- Delaying gratification
- Rearranging priorities
- Making tough decisions
- Working hard for little credit
- Developing a good work ethic
As parents, it can be tough watching our kids struggle to make ends meet, but if that is the pressure they need to become stronger in their character, it’s worth it.
Related post: Saving For Retirement At 50
#7 Financial burdens can build faith
We’ve raised our kids to go to church, to pray, to study the bible and have faith in God. We’ve taught them that He is the One that provides, and we need to put our trust in Him.
We have been truly blessed in our family, always having a comfortable home, enough income for our needs and a little fun now and then. We’ve had some hardships too, and our small share of tragedies. In it all, we keep worshiping God and trusting His will is perfect.
If you’re a person of faith, you might also pray that your children’s faith will only continue to grow as they get older and do life on their own.
One of the toughest areas to trust God in is with finances, but it’s also a huge faith builder when you have to rely on Him to provide for your needs.
If you don’t want to get in the way of what God wants to do in your kids’ lives, you might need to step back just far enough so they can’t rely on you for certain things.
As your kids turn to Him in faith, their prayer life will also strengthen – building humility, surrender, and trust in the One who promises He will meet all their needs.
#8 They’ll be more prepared for adulthood
Not having a free ticket to college can make your kids stop and think about what they really want to do with their lives, and which path they want to commit to.
They won’t have an extra four years of free living, or the time to be choosy with accepting a job that meets all their expectations. They’ll need to start “adulting” pretty quick, such as:
- Learning how to budget and manage their money wisely if they don’t want to end up with additional debt and bad credit
- Planning far enough ahead to get their financial aid in place before it’s required each semester (my son learned this one the hard way)
- Having a job to pay for part of their schooling to keep student loans to a minimum
- Being intentional about which classes they really want to go into debt for
- Keeping that part time job even if it means they don’t get spring break off
- Driving a paid-off older vehicle instead of adding more debt with a newer model – or maybe learning to survive without a car at all!
- Understanding it’s the employee who does the extra 10% that gets the promotions and raises
- Figuring out their wants from their needs
All of these choices will help build good habits that will serve them well their entire lives.
Your kids will learn to be intentional with their time and money. They’ll find creative ways to lower expenses. And, they’ll build the capacity for delayed gratification.
Of course, you can’t expect them to perfectly figure all this out on their own. They’ll inevitably make some wrong choices. They’ll call for help because they didn’t plan well or made a mistake. As their parent, you can always be there to guide them, support them, even pull them out of a hole if you feel it’s the best thing to do.
But, giving them the responsibility of paying for their college education will put them in a position where they have the *opportunity* to learn from their mistakes and make choices that have tangible and immediate consequences.
#9 Sometimes life just doesn’t go as planned
This last reason to not pay for your kids’ college education is for those parents who really wanted to foot the bill, but life took an unexpected left turn somewhere along the road.
You had good intentions to save up the money, but life threw you some curveballs and that college fund had to be used for something else.
Maybe you lost your job. Or got injured and can’t work. Maybe you went through a divorce and now you need every penny to stay afloat.
For our family, it’s been a mounting pile of medical bills that we never thought we’d be under.
Someone once said the most predictable thing in life is its unpredictability. This is also a great life lesson for our kids to learn. Life is not linear and rarely goes as planned.
That’s why it’s important to control what you can (your thoughts and actions) but always remain flexible for those monkey wrenches God likes to throw in the mix.
If you somehow feel guilty about this, or are even *thinking* about taking out loans to cover their college costs – hear me now:
It’s not the end of the world. And it’s not the end of a bright future for your kids!
They can still go to college and get a degree and have successful, fulfilling lives. They’ll just have to work harder to get there – and that is okay. They’ll be better people for it.
I know it’s our nature to put their welfare before ours. But the circle of life doesn’t stop for anybody – and there’s going to come a time when you are too old to work to bring in extra income for all of your health care needs.
If you don’t save your money now, your kids may end up footing the bill – when they’re raising kids of their own.
There are other ways to support them (some ideas on this list may be a good start). You have a lifetime of wisdom and experience and skills to guide them, and you will always be their greatest cheerleader.
Paying for your kids’ college education is optional
College is a huge financial undertaking. As parents, sometimes we assume it’s our responsibility to make sure our kids get the best education after high school, so we feel it’s on us to pay for it.
However, as our kids move out one by one and we enter the empty nest season, followed closely by retirement, we need to make sure we’re taking care of our own financial health first. For many of us, it may not be wise to pay for our kids’ college tuition.
The good news is that putting the responsibility on your kids isn’t a bad thing – in fact, there are a lot of benefits to it, for both you and your kids.
Besides you being able to save more for your retirement, your kids will learn some valuable life lessons as well. When your kids know they’ll need to find a way to pay for college on their own, they’re given the opportunity to learn how to manage money more effectively, take their education seriously, and be more motivated to work hard for raises and promotions.
As parents we have to protect our kids against the negative influences of our culture, and do what we can to teach them how to be responsible and reliable people of integrity and commitment. Sometimes this means pushing them out of the nest so they can struggle with finding their wings. They’ll be stronger for it.
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