Can you save for retirement, college?

Published 2:39 pm Friday, July 30, 2010

As another school year approaches, you may be thinking about the day in which you’ll be sending your children off to college.

Can you afford to help them pay for school while still saving for your own retirement?

There are many strategies to explore when saving for your retirement and your child’s education. To implement the right mix of options, it’s important to discuss your situation with a professional financial adviser, but here are some options to consider:

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Contribute to your 401(k). Since many people don’t have unlimited funds available to save for retirement and college, it’s important to get the most mileage possible from the money invested.

Try to utilize the tax-advantaged retirement accounts available to you. For starters, contribute as much as you can afford to your 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan. Not only can your earnings grow on a tax-deferred basis, but your contributions are generally made with pretax dollars. So the more you contribute, the lower your annual taxable income—which, in turn, could give you more disposable income to invest for college. In 2010, you can contribute up to $16,500 to your 401(k), or $22,000 if you’re 50 or older.

Fund your IRA

Depending on your income level, your contributions to a traditional IRA may also lower your taxable income, again potentially freeing up resources for college. Plus, your earnings can grow tax-deferred.

If you qualify for a Roth IRA, your contributions are not tax-deductible, but your earnings grow tax-free. Withdrawals are also tax-free, provided you’ve held your account at least five years and you don’t start taking withdrawals until you’re at least age 59-1/2.

Also, you can withdraw Roth IRA contributions without paying taxes, since you’ve already been taxed on this money. So you could use these funds, if necessary, to help pay for college costs; although, ideally, you’d like to leave your account untouched until you retire. If eligible, you can contribute up to $5,000 to your traditional or Roth IRA in 2010, or $6,000 if you’re 50 or older.

Open a 529 plan

Contributions to a 529 college savings plan are made with after-tax dollars. However, when you contribute to a 529 plan, your earnings grow tax-free.

Withdrawals are also tax-free, provided they are used for qualified higher education expenses. Withdrawals for expenses other than qualified higher education expenditures may be subject to federal and state taxes plus a 10 percent penalty.

Furthermore, 529 plan contributions may be eligible for a state tax deduction or credit in certain states for residents who participate in their own state’s plan. Also, the lifetime contribution limits for 529 plans are quite generous, and you can gift $13,000 per year, per beneficiary, without incurring gift taxes.

To make sure you understand the tax ramifications of a 529 plan, you’ll want to consult with your tax adviser. It may not be easy to put away as much as we’d like for retirement and college. But you do have some attractive savings and investment options. Don’t delay, because when saving for any goal, time is a great ally.