Why We’re NOT Saving for College

One of the first things people used to say to us when we told them we wanted a large family was, “But how do you plan to pay for college for all those kids?” My answer was simple and usually shocked them: “We don’t.”

It’s hard to argue that we don’t encourage an extended adolescence for our children these days. In addition to providing the right clothes and expensive, popular electronics during childhood, we’re now also expected to:

  • buy our children’s first car (at age 16, of course),
  • replace that car when they wreck it,
  • pay for college (of their choice),
  • pay for at least one semester abroad,
  • help them get their first job and apartment,
  • pay their credit card bills if they can’t,
  • pay for their wedding,
  • let them move back in as an adult (indefinitely and rent-free), and
  • help raise our grandchildren.

In fact, adults moving back in with mom and dad has become so common we have a name for them: boomerang kids.

It goes without saying that we’re not going to feed into the clothing and electronics competition so many parents fall prey to today, mostly because we can’t afford it. But we’re also not going to subsidize my adult children’s lifestyles, either. And that starts with paying for college.

First, it’s not our job to pay for college. As parents, we’re morally obligated to provide the material needs of food, shelter, and clothing, along with basic secular and religious education. Beyond that, my children are not entitled to a new car, a college education, or a big wedding. They’re not entitled to a certain standard of living, either. They’re only entitled to having their basic needs met by me and their father until they’re capable of providing for their own needs.

Second, we’re not going to compromise our family’s quality of life now to save for something our kids may not even need in the future. We have no idea what vocation God will call our children to; to follow Him, they may not even need a college education or a wedding. If they’re unsure of their vocational calling as young adults, they can go into the workforce or military. Too many young people go to college with no clear vocational direction, spending their parents’ money or racking up debt for themselves unnecessarily.

If God does call our children to a professional career that requires college or to married life, they can 1) worry about it once they discern that call, and 2) trust that God will provide what they need THEN to follow His will. Jesus tells us over and over that we’re to trust God to provide what we need, when we need it.

And He said to His disciples, “For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! You men of little faith! And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. (Luke 12)

Obviously, we have to work and do our part, too. We also have to be good stewards of His financial gifts and part of that is saving money when we can. Even then, though, like everything else, we must consider the reason we save and its impact on our spiritual lives and families. It’s hard to argue that saving to afford another child, for a sterilization reversal, for emergencies, or for retirement is the same as saving to buy your teenager a car or a lavish wedding day. “What’s the highest good we can achieve by using God’s money?” we’re required to ask. Rarely is the answer, “To pay for things my adult child may want in the future.”

My three older kids actually fight over who’s going to play with and take care of our 2-year-old toddler. What a loss if we’d stopped having children to save for the older ones to go to college.

One of the saddest outcomes I’ve seen among couples who believe they’re obligated to pay for college is that they limit their family size to do so. I simply can’t imagine God wanting us to deprive our children of more siblings so we can save for the day when one or two of them might need to go to college. A sibling is a friend given to you by God to accompany and support you on the journey of life. My youngest sister, Darlene, is priceless to me. I’m the oldest and she’s the fourth child; I shudder to imagine the richness my life would have lost without her in it, if our parents had decided to stop at two kids to save for my college or wedding. A sibling is an incomparable gift infinitely more valuable to our children than any future financial benefit we can offer them.

Finally, paying your own way builds character and we don’t serve our children when we pay for things that are actually their responsibility to earn. I’ve seen so many middle-aged couples who’ve taken out a second mortgage, dipped into retirement savings, or even taken on a second job to pay for their child’s college or wedding. No matter how extravagant, selfish, or unnecessary the child’s wedding wish, the parents bend over backwards to provide it because it’s their baby’s “special day.” They forfeit their own financial security to cater to their adult children, spending money they don’t have because they can’t bear to say those terrifying four words: “We can’t afford that.” Or better yet, “Pay for it yourself.”

If my kids want a big wedding, they can work, save, and pay for it. If they want a new car, they can work, save, and pay for it. If they want to go to college, they can apply for scholarships and grants, work part-time, and take out loans to pay for it. They can decide whether wracking up $120,000 in student loans to earn $30,000 a year as a teacher is prudent, or whether half that time at community college and the rest at a cheaper state college would achieve the same goal. Let them learn to assess the true value of things and decide whether the sacrifices to obtain it are worth it. It’s amazing how frugal young people become when they’re bankrolling the venture, not mom and dad.

I also want my children to become caring adults who consider others’ needs before their own. Which is why they won’t see me or their father taking out an extra mortgage or working overtime in our 50s or 60s to provide things they ought to be earning themselves. I attended a reputable liberal arts college in the mid-1990s, and saw countless young adults disregard the financial sacrifices their parents made to pay for their education. I’ll never forget my roommate calling her parents and screaming at them because they hadn’t sent enough spending money in the latest care package. (Never mind that her middle-class parents had taken out personal loans to put both her and her sister through college at the same time.) Most whose parents were footing the bill for college expected their parents to pay for spring break vacations to a tropical locale, too. My peers’ lack of gratitude was disgusting. And that was 20 years ago; young people today have an even stronger sense of entitlement toward their parents.

I’m sure by now my husband and I sound like stingy, selfish ogres. We’re really not. Like all parents, we want our children to lead happy and productive lives and to the extent we’re able, we’ll help them financially–when they NEED it. But the fact is, our family is solidly middle class and we have five children (so far). Whatever financial help we’re able to provide will necessarily be limited to what we can spare without compromising more important goals like having more children, providing for our younger children’s needs, and saving for retirement.

Even if we got a huge windfall tomorrow, however, and became fabulously wealthy, we still would not be financially supporting our adult children. We’d still expect them pay for the majority of their college education. We’d expect them pay their dues, which means making their own sacrifices to reach their goals. And be grateful for whatever we can contribute to their goals, without feeling entitled to spending our money as if it’s their own.

Yeah, it’s tough love. And I expect plenty of folks to disagree…especially our children! Oh, well. They’ll just have to thank us in hindsight.

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