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Retirement or College? The Toughest Choice You May Not Have to Make

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Updated on Mar 6, 2009

Are you saving more for your child’s college education or your retirement? If you’re having a hard time deciding, don‘t feel alone.

A new survey by Country Insurance and Financial Services shows that America is split down the middle on the issue. Of the 3,000 adults with children polled, 43 percent valued saving for college over retirement and another 43 percent valued retirement more.

Breaking down the survey results by demographic tells a bit more of the story, with young parents and lower income families more likely to save for college than retirement. And it turns out moms and dads aren't exactly on the same page; more moms wanted to save for college and more dads wanted the condominium in Florida.

The results didn't surprise Keith Brannan, Director of the Financial Security Office at Country Insurance. “You feel like you're picking yourself over them or them over you,” he says. “There’s an emotional attachment there.”

From a financial standpoint, Brannan says it makes more sense to plan for retirement ahead of college because no one is going to lend you money for retirement, but you can borrow money for college. “If you have to pick, pick retirement,” he says, “But, before you pick, find out for sure how you might be able to achieve both.”

Doing both requires planning and consistency: two areas where consumer-driven Americans are lacking, says Brannan. Which is why he suggests sitting down with a professional to work out a plan. You should ask how to structure savings over a period of time to get the maximum benefits. However, before you even walk into your financial planner's door, Brannan says, “Be committed to writing yourself a check every month. You and your children are more important than your next dinner out.”

The survey also reveals Americans lack knowledge about how much college will cost. Of those polled, 25 percent believe it will cost less than $50,000. In reality, figures show that four years at a private college costs more than $80,000.

Despite the setbacks, 78 percent of parents still view college as a good investment and 62 percent say they will take responsibility for funding it.

If you fall into this camp, but are also looking anxiously at your retirement years, it’s time to face facts and start planning.

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