How much college savings is enough?

Dear Liz: My husband and I have three children, two in elementary school and one in middle school. Through saving and investing, we have amassed enough money to pay for each of them to go to a four-year college. In addition, we have invested 15% of our income every year toward retirement, have six months’ worth of emergency funds and have no debt aside from our mortgage and one car loan that will be paid off in a year. Considering that we have all the money we will need for college, should we move this money out of an investment fund and into something very low risk or continue to invest it, since we still have five years to go until our oldest goes to college and we can potentially make more money off of it?

Answer: Any time you’re within five years of a goal, you’d be smart to start taking money off the table — in other words, investing it more conservatively so you don’t risk a market downturn wiping you out just when you need the cash. The same is true when you have all the money you need for a goal. Why continue to shoulder risk if it’s not necessary?

You should question, though, whether you actually do have all the money your kids will need for college. College expenses can vary widely, from an average estimated student budget of $22,261 for an in-state, four-year public college to $43,289 for a private four-year institution, according to the College Board. Elite schools can cost even more, with a sticker price of $60,000 a year or more.

Another factor to consider is that it may take your children more than four years to complete their educations, particularly if they attend public schools where cutbacks have made it harder for students to get required courses in less than five years, and sometimes six.

So while you might want to start moving the oldest child’s college money into safer territory and dial back on the risks you’re taking with the younger children’s funds, you probably don’t want to exit the stock market entirely. A 50-50 mix of stocks and short-term bonds or cash could allow the younger children’s money some growth while offering a cushion against stock market swings.

A session with a fee-only financial planner could give you personalized advice for how to deploy this money.

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  1. Chris Schene says

    Another option for children is to join the US military. The Air Force and Navy are not all that dangerous, you get great experience, you will be forced to grow up really fast. The Airforce for me was really just like any other job.

    They have on base classes and will cover a significant portion of your school cost and you will get something on the order of 50,000 for college from the GI bill. You are also eligible for VA medical care if should should be between jobs and lack health insurance.

    Many children do not know what they want to study at the age of 18 but send them off to the military and they get to grow up fast, see the world, serve their country and get a better perspective in what they really would like to do in life. It is really sad to see someone invest four year in college and then decide that is not what they want to so at all. Some children go to college under pressure from parents but college is not for everyone.

    Also, it requires a great deal of financial sacrifice for a typical middle class family to put sufficient funds aside to cover college 100% for multiple children.