I looked into the bleary, unfocused eyes of a brand new person: my first child. My inner sense of the world recentered on this miniature being.
Oh shit, I thought. I am now fully responsible for another human for the next 18 years.
The moment wasn’t accompanied by the squishy, lovey feelings I had expected — it was more a whirring of instinctual, parental mechanisms clicking into place. My new prime directive: keep this human alive and thriving.
The parental drive to care for our kids is strong. Of course, it includes worries and hopes for our children’s futures — and the financial steps we’ll need to take to secure those futures. Specifically, a lot of young parents (including me) latch onto the importance of saving for college.
But I think saving for college isn’t quite the emergency it might feel like. Here’s why parents should let themselves off the hook a little when it comes to saving for college.
As a new parent, you need time to adjust
Do I want to be at home for more time with the baby? Or should we opt for paid childcare? Can we afford either one? How will that impact my career — or my partner’s? What kind of future can we give this child?
Like any new parent, I had a lot of questions to answer and decisions to make. The answers to these questions were rarely clear, however, and it took some time — along with trial and error — to figure them out.
I, like most parents, needed a while to get life settled after adding a child to our family before I could even consider taking on a new financial goal like saving for college.
If that’s you, give yourself that adjustment period with no strings attached. Take the first six months to a year to get your finances under control as a growing family before you even begin to worry about saving for college.
You’re paying for childcare out of pocket
I was often nagged by my worries about saving for college, so I looked up the average annual cost of college tuition. I was shocked to see it was far less than what I paid my daughter’s daycare (currently tuition is $9,970 per year for resident students at public colleges).
In fact, our daughter’s childcare cost us more than $60,000 in the first three years of her life.
Most of these “costs” came in the form of my own opportunity costs of working less to care for her. I chose to work part time for the first 1.5 years of my daughter’s life, losing out on $40,000 in compensation during that time. I returned to work full time when she was 18 months, but we then faced new daycare costs of $1,150 per month (in Los Angeles). That added up to $20,700 by her third birthday.
Comparing childcare and college costs put things into perspective.
When you’re paying thousands of dollars a year for childcare, covering college costs out of pocket suddenly doesn’t seem like such a wild idea.
If my family could afford to make these sacrifices now to pay for childcare costs, we certainly could do it again to pay for college later. Cash-flowing college might not be easy, but it’s a very reasonable way to cove those expenses — and knowing I had this alternative helped ease the pressure I felt to jump right into saving for college.
You have competing costs and goals
The truth is, college savings are more of a want or nice-to-have in your budget. They shouldn’t get in the way of meeting your family’s needs or financial must-haves.
Today’s childcare costs, groceries, rent or mortgage, and even toys or other things that enrich your child’s life or make your job as a parent more manageable — those often will and should be given priority over college savings. Meeting the immediate needs of your child and family have to come before some far-in-the-future college degree.
Also consider if you have other money goals you need or want to achieve before saving for college. Saving an emergency fund, paying off burdensome debt, or building your retirement savings are all more vital to your family’s financial health than college savings.
While I wasn’t saving for college when my daughter was still in daycare, that didn’t mean I wasn’t saving at all.
I knew one of the best things I could do for her was to bolster our household’s financial stability, especially since we now had a child who relied on me for support. So our family worked first to pay off debt and save up a decent emergency fund.
Weigh your options and obligations, and trust your own judgment about what needs to come first.
You can’t always predict or control costs
*Trigger warning: mentions of infant medical issues and hospitals*
It was Mother’s Day 2016 when I picked up my three-week old son and noted that his small body felt warm. Too warm. We took his temperature, called his pediatrician, and followed her advice to take our feverish infant to the ER.
After a bevy of tests that involved too many needles that were too big for a baby, he was admitted to the hospital. He had what would have been a run-of-the-mill infection for an adult but was life-threatening for a weeks-old infant. It landed him into a week-long stay at the hospital — and landed us into racking up unexpected medical bills.
We learned what many parents do: there is no way to predict or predetermine what kind of child you will get, what needs they might have, or what might happen to them. And when your child is in need, money is the last thing on your mind.
As parents, we can only take care of our children as best as we are able and cover the costs as they come. Saving for college will likely take lower priority — or fall off your radar entirely.
That’s actually good; it means you’re making the hard but necessary choices to keep your child whole and healthy. That’s worth any trade-off, including delaying or pausing college savings.
Households costs and incomes will change
The first few years of a child’s life can be some of the most expensive for parents. But these costs and circumstances also change over time — often for the better.
Take us, for example. Our daughter started kindergarten this past school year, so we no longer need to pay for her full-time care. Our family income is also significantly higher than it was when she was born, as both I and my husband have increased our earnings. We also moved to a city with a lower cost of living, from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Overall, we have a lot more room in our budget now for “nice-to-haves,” such as saving for college. So we decided it was finally the right time to start her college fund.
As the first few years fly by, many families will similarly find their financial pressures easing up and more naturally have more room to save.
Ideally, saving for college starts at birth
Saving for your child’s college education is an important goal. Ideally, as parents, we would all start a college fund at each child’s birth. I applaud parents who make this happen.
But the vast majority of parents I know couldn’t start saving for college at birth, including me.
When I first held my daughter, noting how strange it was to feel her tiny legs moving on the outside of my stomach rather than the inside, saving for college was too much of a stretch.
Becoming a mom left me reeling, spun around by all the new demands placed on me (and by extension, my money). So, despite wanting to save for my daughter’s college education, I put it off — as many families do. On average, parents start saving for college when their child is 6.9 years old.
But if that doesn’t happen, you’re not a failure
When parents can’t start saving for college immediately, it feels like a mark of failure. For me, it highlighted a worry I already had: that I wasn’t financially secure enough to provide my daughter with a good life. That I wasn’t ready to be a parent.
With six years of parenthood behind me, I have the hindsight to appreciate how I showed up without getting too stuck on what I didn’t do, like saving for my kids’ college sooner.
And you know what? Now the pressure put on new parents makes me mad. There are so many ways we’re criticized for making the wrong choice or for not doing enough — and saving for college is just one example of where that happens.
Insisting new parents save for college immediately (and as much as humanly possible) is not only unrealistic — in my opinion, it is unkind.
Parents, you are good enough
Some families will work hard, pinch pennies, and still never get the chance to save for college. My hope for these parents is that they will give themselves credit for the many, many ways they are showing up for their kids and providing a great family life.
Please don’t let this or any other perceived failing make you feel that you are less than the amazing parent you are working so hard to be.
Parents of young kids: You are doing enough.
Providing for them, reading to them, encouraging them, disciplining them, and giving them a loving home are vital ways you can and likely are already investing in your child’s success.