Care and Feeding

Should We Cash Out Our 401(k) to Pay for College?

Our amazing daughter wants to go to a private school. We’re not sure how to pay for it.

A college-bound graduate and a large pile of money
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jupiterimages/ Images Plus; ayzek/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are not particularly well-off, but we are incredibly proud of our daughter, who has worked her butt off and gotten into our (excellent) state school as well as a handful of prestigious private colleges. She wants to go to one of the latter, and apart from a small amount of need-based financial aid, she’s looking at taking on a lot of student loan debt.

The rest of the family thinks we should help pay for part of it by cashing out our 401(k). Truly, I do not love the idea of her leaving college with that kind of debt, but I’m extremely hesitant to put our savings on the line at this point in our lives. (We’re in our early 50s.) What would you do, in our place?

—Great Kid, Not So Great Bank Account


(Throwing my body in front of your 401(k).)

Please, please, please promise me you will not cash out a DIME of your 401(k) for this! The tax penalty for early withdrawals alone! (Even if you were over 59½ years old, I would still tell you not to do this.)

I also advise against taking out your own loans to help pay for her school. The young people are indeed being buried by student loans (I sure wish they weren’t!) but at least they (ideally) have long lives to pay them back. You need to stay focused on your own financial health at this time in your life.

Your daughter is an adult. You can sit with her and break down the numbers on what she would need to earn to handle [insert amount of loan payments here], and you can run the same numbers for your state school. You can suggest doing two years at your state school and then transferring. You can suggest almost anything.

If she wants to go to a private college, she needs to start applying for every podunk $250 scholarship she can find. Lots of organizations have small ones that most people don’t even know about, and her high school guidance office is likely chock-full of resources to help her. She also needs to take out her own loans. If you want to co-sign them, that’s your business.

Get ready for this next phase of your parenting life: advising and stepping back. It’s a rough transition, but a necessary one.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are trying the best we can to provide development opportunities for our 19-month-old son. We engage with him, count, point out similarities and differences, talk constantly, take him on enriching activities, play music, encourage his interests, don’t allow any screen time, etc. However, there’s one area where I feel like we’re failing.

My son has zero interest in books. We offer multiple times a day to read him books or let him page through himself, but 99 percent of the time he will say no and continue to play with his cars or blocks or climb on the sofa. When we can get him interested in books, he flips through all of the pages and doesn’t ever actually hear the story—we struggle to simply point out images before he loses interest 30 seconds later.

All of the advice says reading to your kids is crucial for their development. However, so is respecting their choices. Should we force him to read? Not sure how to handle this.

—Planned on a Bookworm

Dear PoaB,

It is frustrating when our children fail to appreciate all our careful enrichment research! Look, honestly, if you’re holding the line on screen time, your kid is doing great and so are you. Loving and committed engagement is what matters.

Reading to him is important, but you don’t have to drive yourself bananas in the process. I recommend scheduling a half-hour every night where all you do is read to him, but he can pick the books. It’s easier for kids to get used to activities that become rituals, and “story time” is perfect for this. I know he’s only 19 months, but taking him to the library (most have wonderful programs for little kids!) and to the bookstore will also help him associate reading with fun and play. And make sure he sees you and your partner reading for pure enjoyment as well. There is also nothing wrong with a little mild bribery in exchange for sitting and reading together.

Mostly, embrace patience: My kids have gone in and out of phases where all they want to do is read and where they have no interest in it. He’ll get there.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My cousin, a new father, has had a strained relationship with his parents—my dad’s sister and her husband—and even went to therapy last year (finally), which led him to conclude they were emotionally abusive. He started setting boundaries with them, which has not gone well. Most recently, they planned a visit but changed their plans at the last minute, and when he said that wouldn’t work, he received a tirade about gratefulness from his father, who demanded he return money they gave his son when he was born. After a brief back-and-forth, my cousin decided he’d had it and cut off contact.

I explained what was going on to my parents, and my mom is just unwilling to let this be the way things are for now. She and my dad saw my aunt and uncle last weekend, and my aunt was crying on the couch about not knowing what she did wrong. Mom is texting me about inviting everyone to our house for Christmas, and if my cousin doesn’t come, “then he’s the bad guy.” She appears to want my cousin to continually take the high road and, I guess, ignore cruel rants from his dad. She and I have a fundamental disagreement over the right to cut ties with a toxic family member, with her waving the flag of “you just don’t do that to family.”

Maybe my cousin is overreacting. Maybe my aunt is the victim here and it’s my uncle who’s the true bad guy. It sucks all around, and Mom’s in the middle of it because she sees both sides regularly … but also, she is putting herself in the middle. I told mom to just let Christmas go this year; she keeps agreeing, then changing her mind and saying, “OK, I’ll just text them this and that’s it.” I just want to take her phone and say “STOP.” How do I talk to her about this? My cousin shouldn’t have to rehash trauma to justify his decision, but I’m leaning toward asking him to just talk to her and explain where he’s coming from so maybe she’ll understand.

—Stuck in the Middle

Dear SitM,

Ah, the season of “You’re ruining the holidays!” is truly upon us.

I think your best course of action here is to call your cousin and ask him what he does or does not wish to communicate to your mother about the current state of affairs, and if he would like to do it himself.

As you have gathered, your mother is only in the middle because she wants to be. I would work on being a warm listener for your cousin, and a wall of “that’s none of our business”/“I’m tired of talking about this”/“please pass the bean dip” toward your mother. If she keeps running her mouth at him or further stirring up his parents, well, you are not your mother’s keeper.

I am sure there are 19 sides to this and every story, but I am equally sure that respecting your cousin’s boundaries is your best bet. Even arguing with your mother is only fanning the dramatic flames that seem to feed and sustain her, and I think you might find that if you refuse to engage with her on this topic, it’ll burn itself out sooner than you think.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Waldorf schools for little kids, yea or nay?

—My Sister Is a Hippie and We’re Disagreeing About This

Dear Hippie Sister,

I honestly don’t think where you send your very small child matters a tremendous amount in terms of personal educational philosophy, so I recommend saving your money, but it’s up to the individual parent to make that call.

What I will say is that if your sister opts for a Waldorf education for her young children, she needs to get the exact numbers on their vaccine-exemption rates, which according to this Mother Jones investigation can be very low. If they don’t want to provide that information, encourage your nieces and nephews to touch trees on their own time.