NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
My husband and I have roughly $300,000 in a 401(k), another $20,000 or so in stocks and mutual funds and we save approximately $600 a month outside of the 401(k). We are 41 years old and the oldest of our children is two years from college. How do we even start to think about paying for college while still planning for retirement?
-- Chris, Parsippany, New Jersey
The quick answer is, "You don't." That's right, you don't think about paying for college while you're still grappling with retirement planning for yourself.
Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme. But I don't believe you should start putting money aside for your kids' education until you're reasonably certain that you're already saving enough for your future retirement -- and that building a kids' college fund won't derail your retirement plans.
This may sound heartless at first, but I think it makes sense when you think about it. When it comes to building a nest egg for retirement, you don't have all that many options.
There's Social Security, which is hardly going to provide a lavish benefit. And if you're lucky, maybe you'll have a corporate pension.
Beyond that, you're own your own, baby.
The amount of money you'll have for retirement after Social Security and any company pension depends on how much you will have been able to salt way in your 401(k) and other retirement accounts. If you get to age 65 and you haven't been able to build a decent amount of assets in your various retirement portfolios, there's no friendly financial aid officer waiting to give you a retirement grant.
You have to muddle through on what you've got.
When it comes to financing college costs, on the other hand, there's a virtual panoply of options -- scholarships, grants, government loans, private loans.
I don't see any problem with having the kids fund a good portion -- or even all, if necessary -- of their college education costs with loans that they can repay once they begin working. We used to call this sort of thing character building.
Besides, if you think the loans are too onerous and your financial situation is sound, you always have the option of helping your children pay off the loans later on. Indeed, parents pitching in on a student loan was the topic of a column I did just last week.
So make sure you're on track on the retirement front first, and then save what you can for college expenses. After all, you don't want to pay for your kids' educations only to have to throw yourself on their mercy in your dotage because you don't have enough to live on in retirement.
Walter Updegrave is a senior editor at MONEY Magazine and is the author of "Investing for the Financially Challenged." He also answers viewers' questions on CNNfn's Money & Markets at 4:40 PM on Mondays.