How much are you willing to sacrifice to make sure your child gets through college? A Country Financial report surveyed American parents and found that 56% are willing to go into debt to pay for their child's education, with the average parent saying they are willing to take on $31,000 of the financial liability. 

There are many great things about being a parent. Guilt is not one of them. We feel guilty about raising our voices, throwing together mac and cheese when we're too tired to bake chicken, and not saving enough to cover our children's college education.

Military father embracing infant son.

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We start out well enough, putting a little away at a time, and then something big happens. It may be a job loss, a money pit of a home or -- surprise -- a new baby. 

Lender Sallie Mae's "How America Saves for College 2018" found that on average, parents have around $18,000 saved for college. That's awesome if a child is still in kindergarten. But it doesn't even cover a year of college. The average cost for the 2019-2020 academic year at a private nonprofit college is $49,870, which includes tuition, fees, room, and board. A public, four-year, in-state college is cheaper, but still comes to $21,950.

What parents are willing to do

It may seem grossly unfair -- as you look into the eyes of your child -- that some kids are born into families wealthy enough to pay for college without a second thought. Those kids are no better than yours, and they're certainly not as clever as your child (you know this with parental certainty). You would lay down on a train track for your kid, and remove your own liver if need be. There is nothing you would not do. 

Because there's so much competition for admission to top schools, most parents said that they would also find a way to pay for private tutoring, music lessons, athletic coaching, language and art lessons, and SAT or ACT prep classes -- whether they could afford it or not. 

How do they plan to come up with the money? No fewer than 29% of parents said they would skip vacations, 26% say they'll take money from their savings, and 17% plan to take on an additional part-time job. 

The cost of generosity

The big question is how to meet the growing cost of education without saddling your kids with unmanageable student loan debt. In addition to the Country Financial report, which indicated that more than half of parents would take on debt, a T. Rowe Price survey showed 74% of parents prioritize college funds over their own retirements.

And yet, your child will spend (roughly) four years as an undergrad. If you're healthy, you could spend more than 20 years in retirement. Let's say you are among the parents willing to take on that $31,000 of debt and look at what would happen if you instead invested that money for your retirement. 

The average rate of return on the S&P 500 since its inception in 1926 is around 10%. We can err on the side of caution and assume a 9% return. We'll also assume that you're 46 years old and plan to work until you're 66, and that you'd make 240 equal installments of $129 each month.

It would not happen overnight, but over the course of 20 years, that $31,000 could be worth about $80,000. And that's before you factor in the interest you would have to pay on the debt.

There is no escaping the fact that putting your child's education before your own savings or retirement means that you will have less saved for your golden years. And if you take out student loans on your child's behalf, you may still be paying them back after you've stopped working. 

Yes, it feels odd to put your needs before your child's, but what happens if you cut yourself short and don't have enough for the basics once you retire? Will your child be expected to make up the difference, or simply feel terrible because he or she is unable to?

Balance is key

As with most things in life, finding a happy medium is key. With good planning, you can save for both retirement and your child's college education. In fact, a good financial planner understands the delicate balance and can help you manage both. According to the Country Financial report, 25% of people working with a financial planner have put money aside for their child's education vs. 11% of those who have not.

Before you dig into your savings, look for ways your child can finance their education without taking on significant student loan debt or compromising your retirement. The following can help you get started:

  • Apply for scholarships and grants. There are a lot of scholarship programs out there -- and a lot of competition for them. But by searching online and applying for those that reward your child's skills and experience, it could significantly reduce costs.
  • Work with your child to minimize the costs of college. Maybe they could get some credits at a community college or reduce housing costs by skipping the dorm. A part-time job would also keep costs down.
  • Claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit if you are eligible and complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application.
  • Find out if there are grants your child is eligible for at the college he or she hopes to attend, and then apply for them.
  • Encourage your child to work for an employer that offers tuition assistance and enroll in a work-study program.

The cost of education can be overwhelming. But there is no need to feel bad about not handing your child an education on a silver platter. There are plenty of ways you can help without stealing from your own future. That old adage about teamwork making the dream work may be corny, but it's certainly applicable in this case.