Paying for College at Your Expense

 We all want the best for our children.  In an ideal world, if we could pay for 100% of their college and allow them to graduate with no student debt, most parents would gladly do it. However, anytime you use cash flow to pay for college there is an opportunity cost.  “What else could I have done with that money if I had not used it to pay for my kid’s college?”  The simple answer is that you could be using that money now to put toward your retirement.  You can take loans for college, but you can’t take a loan for retirement.

Opportunity Cost of College Tuition

For some of you reading this, opportunity cost might seem like a foreign idea or an abstract concept that can’t be measured.  However, it is very real and although it can’t be measured to the exact penny, you can make some educated estimates about the potential growth of your savings.

For illustrative purposes, let’s take a look at a hypothetical scenario and measure the potential opportunity cost of paying for college.     

Scenario: John and Jane Smith (both age 35) have 1 son Joe Smith and intend to fully fund 4 years of undergraduate school for Joe.  Their son was born in December of 2013. John and Jane are both U of M graduates and, assuming Joe is as bright as mom and dad, they would like him to go there as well.   In any case they intend to pay for 4 years of U of M starting in 2031. The Smiths consider these costs:

  • The cost of U of M for tuition, room, and board is approximately $20,000 in today’s dollars and is estimated to inflate at 6% annually over the next 18 years.
  • So the Smith’s estimate the first year of college will cost $57,086, 2nd year $60,511, 3rd year $64,142, and 4th year $67,991. 
  • The total estimated cost for 4 years of college is $249,730.

Adding Up the Opportunity Cost

Unfortunately, the cost doesn’t end there.  This is where the concept of opportunity costs comes in. You see, the Smiths didn’t have to set aside these funds for Joe. They could have put them in their retirement accounts instead.  To fully understand the true cost of utilizing those dollars to pay for education, you also have to measure what that money could have potentially grown to at John and Jane’s retirement age of 65.  When Joe starts college John and Jane would be 53.  That means the $249,730 they have set aside could have the opportunity to grow for another 12 years. Assuming a 6% rate of growth the hypothetical account would compound to $502,505.   John and Jane would have the opportunity to add an additional $250,000 to their retirement account.

Having said all of this I’m not advocating kicking the kids out at 18 and changing the locks.  However, I am advocating being informed about the ripple effects of the financial decisions we make.  For people under the age of 40 with no pensions (and social security looking like a shaky proposition) it is imperative that you be efficient with financial decisions.  One of the benefits of working with a professional planner is putting these decisions under a microscope and creating a plan to decide what you can truly afford to do while still maintaining your financial independence.  

Matthew Trujillo, CFP®, is a Registered Support Associate at Center for Financial Planning, Inc. Matt currently assists Center planners and clients, and is a contributor to Money Centered.


Any opinions are those of Center for Financial Planning, Inc. and not necessarily those of RJFS or Raymond James. All illustrations are hypothetical and are not intended to reflect the actual performance of any particular security. Future performance cannot be guaranteed and investment yields will fluctuate with market conditions. Investing involves risk and investors may incur a profit or a loss. C14-017739