Millennials are saving more for kids' college than older parents: study

Adults under 35, the so-called millennial generation, report saving more for their children’s college education than older parents from Generation X and the baby boomer generation, according to a new report from Sallie Mae. Why? 

Heather Leiphart/News Herald/AP/File
Mothers do warm up exercises while entertaining their children during Baby Boot Camp, an exercise program for moms and young children at First United Methodist Church in Panama City, Fla.

new study by student loan provider Sallie Mae found that young adults under 35, the so-called millennial generation, report saving more for their children’s college education than older parents from Generation X and the baby boomer generation.

With the overall rise in college tuition, paying for college is a major investment for many families, and the amount saved will have a major impact on the overall financial situations of parents and students.

We asked Mark Struthers, a financial advisor in Chanhassen, Minnesota, and a member of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor network, how recent economic trends may be affecting college savings rates among these demographic groups.

Why are younger parents saving more?

Millennials endured and are enduring larger relative increases in education costs than the previous two generations. As a result, they’re suffering more under the weight of student loan debt. My millennial clients often don’t want their children to suffer under the burden of student debt the way they did. Millennials also have less faith in the system. They often don’t believe that educational financial aid or Social Security will be there for them or their kids.

Two positive things going for millennials are that they had few assets to lose in the 2009 recession and that they came out of it with a healthy suspicion of traditional institutions.

What impact could this have on Gen-X finances, including retirement savings?

When it comes to retirement planning, Gen X parents are victims of bad luck. They have endured:

  • Stagnant wages: For most of their working life, the past 15 to 20 years, wages have been flat.
  • Poor timing in the housing market: Many bought houses right before the 2009 bubble, when prices were inflated.
  • Higher education costs: Even if education costs level off, children of Gen X parents will still suffer much like millennials.

This means that the education debt load on children of Gen X parents will increase, that Gen X parents’ standard of living will decrease or that Gen X parents’ retirement will be delayed.

For this reason, I encourage most Gen X clients to consider working comfortably in retirement rather than working a job they hate with a fixed date for retirement. Working comfortably in retirement can mean working part-time, consulting or starting your own business. If you love what you do, working into your 60s or 70s can be a positive, not a negative. Your 40s and 50s can be a good time to get the education you need or start a “side hustle” in preparation for this shift.

Your human capital is the most valuable asset you own. Your jobs skills, education and experience can provide more financial security than any other asset. Unlike owning a share of a company’s stock, you have control over the return and the outcome.

What are some simple steps for older parents who haven’t started saving?

It’s true that the sooner you start, the sooner you can make the most of what you have. If you have the luxury of starting early,compound interest can be a magical thing.

Even if you start late, however, there are things you can do. For example, if your state offers a 529 tax credit, take advantage of it. It’s free money.

If you’re really in a bind, try to get your friends and family involved. Tell your child’s story on social media. Set up a crowdfunding page. The pooled resources of families and friends may help you make up for lost time.

How should parents balance their retirement savings with paying for college?

Your retirement should come first, your kids’ college funding second. A common saying is, “You can always borrow for education; you can’t for retirement.” Student debt should be a last resort, but the saying is correct. No one offers grants, scholarships or federally guaranteed loans with income-based repayment schedules to support you when you leave the workforce.

In addition, technology has increasingly blessed us with lower-cost options for education and student loans. For example, onlinestudent loan refinancing companies have emerged over the past several years. Their new lower-cost models and new way of looking at borrower risk have made loans less expensive and more transparent. The internet continues to democratize many financial services, and the old large financial institutional gatekeepers are losing pricing power. The trend toward lower-cost loans will most likely continue, affecting not only student loan refinancing but also private loan origination.

Also, most retirement accounts are not counted as assets for financial aid, so whatever you’ve saved will not affect how much aid your child qualifies for.

Any other tips on saving for college?

Be open-minded to lower-cost, nontraditional education options. Your student may be able to take college classes while still in high school, at a community college or online. It’s not the traditional college experience, but what price are you willing to pay for that experience?

Mark Struthers, CFA, CFP, is a fee-only planner with Sona Financial in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

This article first appeared in NerdWallet.

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