Parents Too Quick to Spend Savings for Tuition?

How advisers can help keep participants’ money in their plan.

It should come as no surprise that parents and grandparents, when able, want to help the children pay for college. 

Increasingly, however, that ability comes at the expense of retirement saving. To learn the extent of that trend, the LIMRA LOMA Secure Retirement Institute recently asked approximately 1,000 Americans about whether they would—or do—finance their offspring’s higher education. More than collecting numbers, though, the researchers wanted to give a warning, if needed, to self-sacrificing families who might later find they’ve given up more than they bargained for.

“It’s the first time we’ve done this kind of retirement debt study,” says Michael Ericson, a LIMRA analyst and the study’s author. “Student Loans and Retirement: Consumer Behaviors and Attitudes” is actually a carve-out of the association’s quarterly financial survey published in May, which looked at the degree of student loan debt.

“We wanted to get a snapshot to put some perspective around how college debt is impacting retirement security,” says Catherine Theroux, assistant vice president of public relations at LIMRA LOMA.

While not plumbing for specific details, the survey found that 39% of Americans would be willing to defer, or continue working in, their retirement to help their children or grandchildren pay for college. In fact, almost one-third (30%) have already helped, tapping their retirement savings to do so. “Twenty-two percent of people said they currently provide significant financial support to children or grandchildren to help save for college, and 9% were actually paying for college,” Ericson says. A full 40% of those with children or grandchildren, feel obliged to help.

The findings are troubling, both agree, as many of those respondents have an unrealistic sense of how they will compensate. According to both Theroux and Ericson, education is needed at the plan sponsor level to help participants recognize their true capabilities, in terms of shouldering more expenses.

NEXT: What participants need to know

Admittedly, those raising children are in a difficult position. “Student loans have spiked over the past two decades—a trend that will persist into the future,” Ericson says. He cites a 2014 LIMRA study, which noted the change: “The average education debt increased from $3,000 in 1989 to over $19,500 in 2013 for [those under age 35].”

“With the average student loan approaching $30,000, people have been forced to shuffle around their financial priorities and obligations,” he says.

Any educational effort needs to consider these obligations and present them realistically. “It’s really important that people think through what they’re doing,” Theroux says, as that will best empower them to help their children or grandchildren. One obligation uncommon until recently is a post-retirement mortgage. LIMRA found that a growing percentage of Americans are retiring with their home in the red, she says, observing that her grandparents waited to retire until they owned their home outright. “That’s a big portion of most people’s working income,” she notes. If they’re retiring with a mortgage and depleting the rest of their savings for college, I’m not sure where the money will come from.”

Education also needs to address misconceptions participants have by laying out pertinent facts. “So many people don’t know how much money they need for retirement, and how much money school costs, and that they won’t always be able to work for as long as they think they will,” Ericson observes.

Pointing to the group who said they plan to defer retiring, he says, “That’s usually the easiest answer to a problem like this—just to say, ‘I’m going to keep working, and that will make up for the money later.’ But that’s not always the case.”

NEXT: What the experts suggest

“There’s a misunderstanding, too, that your expenses will diminish when you retire,” Theroux says, “like suddenly, you’ll need only half of your income.” To have this degree of savings, would typically means considerable downsizing, she says.

“I don’t think many people think long term, about the impact [that helping to pay for college] can have,” she says. She also points to the loss in compounding when savings is withdrawn. “Especially when you’re in your 40s or 50s—which often coincides with children’s college years—that time to grow your investment is critical.”

Participants, especially Millennials who want to save for their children’s education, should be advised about 529 college saving plans, with their generous tax deferrals, both experts say. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed currently invest in these accounts.  

Beyond these, participants might also consider their child taking an old-fashioned student loan. Says Theroux: “As I recently told my sister, ‘You can get a loan for college; you can’t get a loan for retirement. No one is going to give you a loan for retirement.’”

For the study, LIMRA surveyed 992 Americans, representing a cross-section of the U.S. population, in July.

The LIMRA LOMA Secure Retirement Institute provides research and education about the retirement industry. More information about the report can be found here.