Balance. That’s the word I think about when contemplating how families need to think about education funding. According to Merriam-Webster, there are many definitions of balance, but the one that seems most apt for education is “the equipoise between contrasting, opposing, or interacting elements.” For example, “the balance we strike between security and freedom” or in the case of education, “the balance you strike between funding a child’s near or long-term future and your own financial independence.”

During the early years, that might mean whether your family can afford to have one parent stay at home or work. When faced with this choice, you need to account for the loss of potential earnings (and retirement contributions) and the cost of day care or baby sitters. As kids get older, the case for putting a child’s education needs first is compelling: according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the amount of money earned over a career increases with attainment of education.

Lifetime Earnings by Education Level:

High school diploma =$1,777,152 (48 years)

Associate’s degree = $1,999,712 (46 years)

Bachelor's degree = $2,683,824 (44 years)

You will also notice that on average, those with more education are able to retire earlier and they are consistently less likely to become unemployed during their careers.

These numbers might encourage you to pull out all of the stops when it comes to funding your kids’ education, but the tricky part is that you still need to take care of yourself. After all, there are a myriad of options to help fund college: financial aid, scholarships, work-study and loans. But none of these will be available for your retirement.

So where to start? As always, the best bet is to create a game plan with a CERTIFIED FINANCAL PLANNER™ professional. The plan will incorporate education and retirement funding with other cash flow needs. You may want to plug in some numbers for college, but keep in mind that prices vary dramatically. As you begin to investigate the options, note that there is a big difference between the published price of tuition and fees and the price after grants and scholarships have been applied. Schools now use “net price,” which is the average price students pay, including tuition and required fees, books and supplies, and room and board, after accounting for grant and scholarship money received. The national average net price for a public school is $12,272, while the national average net price for a private school is $21,778.

With that information in hand, you may joyfully discover that you can fully fund both education and retirement, but more likely, you’ll need to make tough choices. The plan should also be able to reveal whether education decisions will saddle young graduates or their families with debt burdens that prevent them from reaching their other financial goals.

With the plan in place, it is also important to communicate with your kids. According to best selling financial author Beth Kobliner, “Talking with your kid about college when he’s a freshman in high school – or even at the end of eighth grade – may seem premature. All that stuff will work itself out in a couple years, right? Think again. The financial aid and college admissions process will be stressful no matter what, but waiting will only make it worse. By not talking about your kid’s college possibilities and your own expectations now, you could end up disappointing him (and let’s face it, yourself) down the road if he’s thinking one thing and you’re envisioning another.”

If you are having a tough time figuring out how to actually start the conversation, I recommend Beth’s website, where she offers written and video examples for every stage of the education funding process.