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Whether you’re getting ready to retire or already there, tapping your retirement savings to help pay your child’s college expenses may be a decision you’ll regret. It even could be one your child eventually regrets.

It’s an emotionally charged issue with a lot of potential “guilt” baked in. Before acting, think this one through.

College vs. Retirement Costs

Retirement and college both cost money. The most often quoted estimate suggests you need about 80 percent of your preretirement income to live comfortably. According to the College Board, the average cost  for a year of post-secondary education ranges from $24,610 for an  in-state college to $49,320 for a private university. Removing that much money ($98,000 to $197,000 over four years) could inflict a great deal of damage on most retirement savings accounts.

Harm to You Both

You would be stealing your own future with no realistic way of replacing the money taken out—except by going back to work, borrowing at high interest rates or selling valuable assets. If you develop medical problems, your options would be even more limited.

Plus, you are not the only one who stands to lose by footing the college-education bill. By bearing no responsibility, your child won’t learn to budget or set priorities. Even worse, if your financial well-being collapses in future years, your now-adult kid may be called on to bail you out and/or provide shelter or other support.

Time Is on Your Child’s Side

Your child has much longer to finance her (or his) education as well as build a retirement fund than you do. Frankly, time is on her side, not yours. Student loans are available, and while student loan debt is a serious problem in the U.S., it isn’t worse than being unable to support yourself in retirement. With loans, scholarships and part-time jobs all available options, the main source of funding for your child’s education shouldn’t be you—especially if you simply don’t have the money. (The only exception: You have such a huge retirement fund that tapping it for college won’t make an appreciable difference.)

Responsible Actions to Take

The instinct—not to mention the imposed social guilt—to “see your child through college” creates an emotionally charged situation. It’s up to you to control your emotions while determining honestly and responsibly how much you can afford to help.

Check your budget

Determine how much, if anything, you can afford to contribute to your child’s college education. Don’t let any withdrawal from your retirement savings put you below the amount you need to pay your bills.

Set your limit

Let your child know what your “bottom line” for support is and stick to it.

Make a deal

If you can afford to pay in-state fees, say so. If your child wants to attend an out-of-state school, she should make up the difference.

Do what you can

If you can’t foot the entire bill, perhaps you can help pay for room and board, books or other expenses.

Fill out the FAFSA

No matter what you do or don’t do, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It is the basis for all financial aid.

Help with the loan process

Whether you take out a loan, co-sign or simply provide moral support, help your child with the loan process to make sure she is being treated fairly and understands everything she signs. Be very careful before co-signing any student loans; you could lose Social Security funding if your child defaults on payments.

Avoid debt

The one thing you don’t need in retirement is debt. If you can’t fund your kid’s college without borrowing, you can’t afford it.

The Role of a Roth IRA

Don’t forget that a Roth IRA is suitable for both retirement savings and college funding when needed. While it’s true that a Traditional IRA is not subject to an early withdrawal penalty if used for college expenses, you will pay income taxes and the withdrawal could impact financial aid.

Get Advice, Then Relax

Before you attempt to finance your child’s college education when you are near or in retirement, seek the advice of a trusted financial advisor. You need an impartial third party to help you make informed decisions about what you can and cannot do.

Once you have made your decision, do what you can and no more. Don’t put your future, including your assets, at risk. That will not be doing yourself or your child a favor—and it may end up hurting you both. Finally, let the guilt trip go. Doing the smart thing financially is also doing the right thing. At the end of the day, food and shelter are more important than even a college education.

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