Pay Off College Debt or Save For your Kid's Education?

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —As a young mother, Torski Dobson-Arnold faces an all-too-common dilemma: How to save for her son’s college education while she’s still paying off hers.

“I have over $50K in students loans that I’m desperately trying to make a dent in,” says Dobson-Arnold, a career coach and founder of Your Career Confidence based in Mechanicsville, Va. “Yet I am preparing for, and creating the expectations, that my 10-year old son will attend college in less than ten years.”

Also see: Young Student Loan Borrowers Are Bagging the Home Mortgage and Auto Markets

Dobson-Arnold and her husband are taking a two-pronged approach to the challenge – paying down the debt while also socking away money for their son’s future college tuition and expenses. “As parents, you will either pay on the front end or the back end for your child's education,” Dobson-Arnold says. “It's a little bit more affordable now, so that's what we are doing.”

Plenty of young parents, or those planning on having children in the next several years, face a similar quandary. And when it comes to making the right financial moves, the stakes are certainly high. Based on the College Board’s projections, if the cost of college education increases at an expected 6 % annual rate, when Dobson-Arnold’s son enters a private college in 2021, tuition will be more than $71,000 annually. Parents of even younger children face even heftier bills. A baby born in 2012 faces a projected four-year price tag of $288,000 for a private college and $123,000 at an average public school. Want that soon-to-be-toddler to go Ivy League? Expect to shell out more than $422,000 for that coveted degree.

Also see:Young Student Loan Borrowers Are Bagging the Home Mortgage and Auto Markets

So with those daunting projections in mind, is simultaneously saving for college and aggressively paying off college debt the best financial move? Experts say – as with a lot of money-related decisions -- it depends to a degree on individual circumstances. Yet here are some guidelines and tips that can help you reduce student loan debt while also ensuring Junior will be able to attend college.

Secure the nest egg: Before you get overly aggressive on either paying off your loans or saving money for your kid’s college, it’s best first to establish an emergency fund that would be there in the event that anything goes awry. With the uncertain economy, experts suggest that you squirrel away at least four to seven months worth of living expenses. “There's no substitute for adequate liquidity, says, Mitchell D. Weiss, a finance professor at the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business, Economics & Finance.

Run the numbers: If your emergency fund is in place -- or at least under construction -- Weiss then suggests a logical approach to the college quandary. Calculate if the potential earnings on your investments for your child’s education will likely outpace the interest rate you’re paying on your student loan debt.

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“The answer is not complicated to the extent that if you know that you can safely and reliably earn a higher rate of return on your prospective savings and investments compared to the interest rate you're currently paying on the debt, then use the extra cash to save and invest,” Weiss says. “Otherwise, pay down your loans as quickly as you can.”

The challenge within this advice is that currently there are few investment options delivering returns outside of the stock market. Still, a wisely diversified portfolio can likely outpace interest rates on your loans over a 10- to 20-year time horizon.

Know your savings options: Several investment vehicles specifically designed to help pay for college may help tip the equation toward focusing on college savings as opposed to an all-out war on your student-loan debt. Several options exist, but the most common is a 529 Plan operated by a state or educational institution. The plans help family set aside funds for college costs and feature beneficial tax breaks that can help bolster the long-term returns generated by these vehicles.

Also see: The Rise of the 529: How to Afford College

Find the right balance: Financially, it is possible to do two things at once – save for college and pay down loan debt, says Elle Kaplan, CEO and Founding Partner of Lexion Capital Management. The secret, says Kaplan, is to develop a plan and stick with it. She advocates Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) 50-30-20 plan that is detailed in Warren’s book, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan (Free Press, 2006). The 50-30-20 approach calls for 50% of each paycheck goes to bills and expenses, 30% is spendable income for your "wants," and at least 20% goes to savings. “This easy system lets you save in proportion to your income while still taking care of your bills and loan payments,” Kaplan says.

Look out for number one: Other financial experts are firmly in the camp that you can’t help your kids if you don’t first help yourself. That means foregoing saving for your children’s education until your debts are paid off in full. “Parents need to focus on their own financial stability,” says Andrea Travillian, a personal finance expert and founder of Smart Step, Inc., a financial advisory firm. “If you pay off your loans and build a solid financial base then you will have more options to pay for college down the road. If you don't build a solid financial base, then it is harder to not only help your kids but yourself. No one will give you a loan to retire, but worst case scenario your child can take out a student loan.”

Get scholarship savvy: While there is surely no guarantee your rugrat is destined for a D-1 full-ride basketball scholarship, there may be money out there for him or her when the time for college nears. It’s never too early to start educating yourself about the scholarship possibilities. Terri Jay, an expert in nonprofit grants who has also developed expertise on finding and landing scholarships says, “there are literally millions of dollars in scholarships that go unused every year.” Scholarships.com is a good starting point to get a sense of the range of scholarships that are available.

“Parents need to become professional scholarships "getters" for their kids,” Jay says. “I am still amazed at the number of parents who receive one scholarship and quit looking…There are scholarships available from corporations, businesses, business organizations, social organizations, fraternal groups, foundations, etc. There are scholarships in the area of study, from the students' hometowns, students from a particular ethnic group, and more. All it takes is a little research and a lot of diligence to totally fund a child's education.”

And just think: If your kid lands a scholarship – or two or three – that money you did save for his or her college education can be put to good use in other ways. Maybe you’ll be forced to decide between an earlier retirement, buying a second vacation home, or paying for some long-held travel dreams. Now that’s a quandary that plenty of people wouldn’t mind facing.

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