MONEY

Saving for college and early retirement

Scott and Michele Groth want to fully fund state college tuition for their daughters Casey, 17, and Sydney, 12. Photo: Miller Mobley

For Scott and Michele Groth, the dream of early retirement almost seems within reach.

At age 58 both can start collecting pensions worth about half their current pay, plus cost-of-living increases.

Since Scott is a federal employee, they will also get low-cost retirement health care benefits. All that’s on top of the $315,000 they’ve saved in retirement accounts.

But there’s a big hitch: The Groths want to fully fund state college tuition for their daughters Casey, 17, and Sydney, 12.

Though recent promotions and raises have boosted their income by $20,000 over the past two years, they’ve got only $8,000 in college savings, and Sydney will graduate just a year before their hoped-for retirement age.

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The Groths caught a break when Casey, who will start at New Mexico State University next year, became eligible for a state scholarship that covers eight semesters of tuition as long as she maintains a 2.5 GPA. (Son Jacob, 21, is in the Air Force, which will pay for his degree in full.)

They figure modest retirement dreams will take them the rest of the way. “We just want to spend time at home with our future grandkids,” says Michele.

Occupations: Director of logistics at an Air Force base; first-grade teacher

Goals: To retire by 2023 and pay for their kids’ college educations

Total income: $169,000

Total assets: $375,000
Retirement savings: $315,000
Home equity: $30,000
Cash: $22,000
College savings plan: $8,000

THE PROBLEM

The Groths are underestimating how much their children’s higher education will cost, says Lee Munson, a financial planner in Albuquerque.

Even with her scholarship, Casey’s student fees, room and board, and daily living expenses are likely to add up to about $7,500 a year. And the $50 a month the Groths are putting in Sydney’s 529 plan now won’t pay for much school in six years.

THE ADVICE

Save for college — quick! The Groths will need to tap some of their $22,000 emergency fund immediately for Casey’s living expenses.

Munson recommends they put $450 a month aside to rebuild that account. They should also put $200 more a month in Sydney’s 529.

Go aggressive. Nervous about what’s going on in Washington, Scott moved 70% of the couple’s retirement savings into short-term bonds last year.

That won’t give the couple the growth they need for a retirement of more than 30 years.

Since they have substantial pensions and can absorb periodic losses, Munson recommends an 80%/20% mix of stocks and bonds. They’ll need to sock away an additional $750 a month to hit their goal of retiring in 10 years.

While that will require some belt-tightening for the next few years while Casey is in school, Scott isn’t fazed: “We can definitely put away more,” he says.

Don’t become landlords. The Groths hope to cut Casey’s living costs by buying a house near the campus in Las Cruces that she can share with roommates.

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Don’t do it, says Munson. They’ll be on the hook for long-distance repairs and maintenance, will need expensive liability insurance, and will add to their debt load with retirement just a decade away.

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