Financial Planning for College & Retirement

College for the kids, cozy retirement for mom. How hard is that? Plenty hard — especially when things don’t go as expected. But as one woman learned, there is always plan B.

By Marion Asnes

Saving for the Future

Six short years ago, with one daughter in elementary school and one in middle school, I was sure I had the children’s future covered. My investments were going to pay for Ana and Laura to go to the colleges of their choice. Their father, my ex, was on board for half the expenses, meaning that we could handle any unexpected problem or a jump in inflation. Best of all, my current husband’s investments were going to take care of his and my retirement, which was looking almost cushy.

That was then. This month, as I see Ana off to her freshman year, I bear the financial burden for the girls’ education myself, as well as the responsibility for a good part of my retirement, if that day ever comes. Ours is a tale of a burst market bubble, a death, and the financial fallout of denial.

Bad Decisions & Rotten Luck

In a life of much good fortune and many satisfactions, I have usually played the optimist, and it has served me well. But this fall, as I turn 50, I have learned that the worst occasionally does happen. I will pay for everyone’s bad decisions — and rotten luck — for the rest of my life.In 1998, when I married him, Mark had a high-paying Internet job and a hefty portfolio of stock options. But when the tech market cooled, many of the options became worthless. In 2001, he was downsized and after 9/11, he decided to opt out of the corporate world for good. A big chunk of his investment portfolio financed our living expenses while he went back to school in a slightly less lucrative field: landscape design. Five years and many tense discussions later, he is still getting his new business off the ground. I am the only one with a 401(k), health insurance, and a regular paycheck that keeps cash pulsing through our home.

But there was more to our perfect storm. Just as Mark’s and my investments were tanking, the children’s father was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2004. For years, I had believed that, no matter how my ex felt about me, he would provide for his children. He had always spent lavishly on them — luxurious vacations, expensive restaurants. But when I saw his will, I found that the money he left for college was… well, let’s say it won’t go far.

That same year, I lost my job when my company went through a management shake-up. As our financial fortunes continued to spiral down, I spent many nights staring at the ceiling, cursing my own and others’ mistakes. It took months to get past the anger and be grateful for my family, my friends, and my health.

Fortunately, while I was whining, I was also working. I’m a journalist with years of experience. Even when I had a full-time job, I had moonlighted. Freelance writing jobs paid for summer camps; speaking engagements covered the psychologists who counseled my kids while their dad was dying. When I lost my job, I kicked those activities into overdrive and kept hunting for a new full-time gig. Last year, I got my current job, editing a magazine for financial advisers.

Don’t Sacrifice Retirement for College

Yes — personal finance is my field of expertise. I’ve been drilled in the realities of saving and investing for years, and writing about retirement since I was in my 20s, when the idea seemed pretty abstract. I remember once joking on television that, because I was part of the generation that might see Social Security tapped out, my own retirement home could be a refrigerator box along the highway. But I was joking.

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