Why you’re saving for college all wrong


There are some investments for my kids' college. After Helena was born, and I was married, we had a chunk of money and plopped it in a 529 plan, a savings tool that gives you all kinds of great tax breaks. That move, by a stroke of great luck, happened in 2009, at the bottom of the market, and that investment has done quite nicely. Even so, every once in a while I'll plop my family's info into a college savings calculator — and more or less shut down mentally, emotionally and digestively. The sums required to pay for college for two kids is overwhelming. They are 5 and 7, and even though I know better, I choose to believe that is a very long time away.

Bad mom.

I'm not alone in my bad college savings ways, and my friends at T. Rowe Price know this very well. The investment firm found that 52% of parents said it was more important to save for their kids' college rather than their own retirement, and 53% agree with the statement, “I would rather dip into my retirement savings to pay for my kids’ college education than have them take on student loans.”

Check out the fun video with T. Rowe Price financial planner Stuart Ritter, who explains why this sort of thinking is flawed:

Stuart breaks down:

  • Myths and realities of 529 plans (no, the government doesn't snatch away any unused investments!)
  • Harsh realities of saving for retirement vs. college (“There are no scholarships for Top 10 Retirees”). One recent survey found that while parents overall are guilty of irresponsibly prioritizing their kids' college savings over their own retirements, single moms are especially egregious in this regard.
  • Cold-hard facts about why you have to start saving early
  • Realistic goals (my fav).

I actually learned a lot from Stuart (least of which is how the 529 got its name. Ladies, what would YOU name it if you could??), even though I'm a personal finance journalist. Have a look. And for more info on college savings, head to T. Rowe Price's college page. 


T. Rowe Price sponsored this post. 


About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list. Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. BH on September 2, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks. I recently found your blog and this article is particularly interesting to me as a single mom. Right now, I’ve tethered 100% of child support payments from my son’s father into his 529 plan. I’m worried that this will create a sort of “moral hazard” where I will effectively end up paying for 100% of the college costs when it should be a shared cost with his father (note this is not addressed in our parenting agreement and his father would not willingly contribute each month to a 529 plan). If I keep doing this, I will be able to fully fund college and maybe even some professional school, but I don’t think it should be my sole responsibility. What are other single parents doing in a similar situation? Am I letting his father off the hook if I over save? Should I just save half of the anticipated costs of college in his 529 plan and hope that his father will step up when the time comes?

    • Emma on September 2, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      Hey BH – Good for you for saving so much already! As it stands, the dad is not interested in contributing to your son’s college degree. Since you are willing and able to invest now, and seem inclined to, go ahead. There is no legal recourse to make the dad chip in now or later. Best to let that resentment go and keep on keeping on. Only control what you can control, ya know?

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