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Ask an Advisor: I Have 4 Kids and Make $85k But My Husband Doesn’t Work. How Do I Start Investing So I Can Pay for College?

Financial advisor and columnist Brandon Renfro

I’m in my mid-40s, married with four kids. My husband doesn’t want to work and has left the financial responsibilities to me for as long as I can remember. I don’t have much in my savings account or in my 401(k). My annual income is only around $85,000. My eldest is about to start college, which I will have to pay for out of pocket as I have not set up a college fund because money has always been tight. I need advice on investing. I’ve heard a lot about mutual funds, index funds, stocks, etc. but I need advice on where to specifically put what little money I’ve saved.


I want to start by acknowledging the stress that your financial strain is causing. Your second sentence speaks to what is by far the most pressing issue in my opinion. You may want to consider involving another professional such as a counselor or religious leader if you haven’t already.

There are some simple ways you can start investing, including passively managed index funds. However, I’d be cautious about putting your child’s college tuition ahead of your own financial stability and future retirement. (And if you need more help managing your finances or investment advice, consider speaking with a financial advisor.)

What to Consider When Paying for College

A group of college graduates celebrate by holding up their diplomas.

It’s natural to want your kids to have the best chance at a rewarding life. A college education, on average, provides a meaningful boost toward that end. However, as someone who used to be a college professor, I firmly believe that you can get a good education, and one that leads to improved career prospects, affordably.

For most people, there is simply no need to fork over a ton of money for a college degree. I’d encourage your child to consider what they want to do with their degree and think about where they can get it economically. Community colleges and regional universities are often fine choices. 

I’d also suggest you should consider whether or not you actually have to pay for it. It sounds like you are underfunded for your own retirement. It may not make sense for you to divert funds away from your own financial goals, including retirement, while your child potentially has other means of paying for their education. 

Yes, that includes student loans. I know that can be an icky topic, and I’m not advocating that your child take out a bunch of loans that will weigh them down years into the future. However, taking out a $5,000 loan so they can attend the welding program at a local community college is probably a good move if they are open to learning a trade.

Professional degrees that directly lead to employment in high-demand fields are often worth borrowing money to pursue. But taking out $100,000 for a bachelor’s degree whose only value is as a pathway to graduate school rather than a real job? Not so much.

I’d keep this takeaway in mind: if your child’s degree isn’t worth them taking out loans to achieve, neither is derailing your own retirement so you can pay for it. (And if you need help saving and planning for retirement, consider matching with a financial advisor.)

How to Start Investing

If you are going to tackle your own investments, you may want to take some time exploring different investment styles. However, complexity is your enemy and I’d encourage you not to make it any more complicated than it has to be. I’m a big proponent of passive investing using index funds

An index fund tracks the stock market as a whole or a specific segment of it. These low-cost funds simply buy shares in all the companies that comprise a particular index and strive to mirror the overall performance of the stock market or stock index. Index funds don’t look to “beat” the market, they simply try to match the market’s overall performance.

Before you start buying funds, you’ll need to decide how aggressively you want to invest and identify an asset allocation – a mix of investments – that you are comfortable with. There are plenty of online tools available to guide you if it’s something you’d like to do on your own.

If you have time and interest in reading a book that will explain it in easy-to-digest terms I always suggest starting with “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.”  It’s very accessible to non-financial types. (And if you need additional help selecting and managing your investments, this tool can match you with potential financial advisors.)

Bottom Line

I’d be cautious of putting yourself even further behind on retirement to pay for a child’s higher education. Ultimately, it increases the odds that they may need to support you later in life anyway. Decide on a simple and manageable investment plan, and give strong consideration to using index funds to build a diversified portfolio with an asset allocation that suits you.

Tips for Finding a Financial Advisor

  • Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Consider a few advisors before settling on one. It’s important to make sure you find someone you trust to manage your money. As you consider your options, these are the questions you should ask an advisor to ensure you make the right choice.

Brandon Renfro, CFP®, is a SmartAsset financial planning columnist and answers reader questions on personal finance and tax topics. Got a question you’d like answered? Email and your question may be answered in a future column.

Please note that Brandon is not a participant in the SmartAdvisor Match platform, and he has been compensated for this article.

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