Going back to school later in life is a significant decision for anyone, but it can be especially daunting and challenging for moms. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 26% of undergraduate students are parents — and 71% are women.
As CFP professionals, one of our most important responsibilities is providing guidance and support to moms who are returning to school, often to help secure their financial future. Advisors must take many factors into account when guiding them through this journey. Let’s explore what challenges moms face as they return to school, and how you can help them succeed.
Creating a financial plan
A college education can be very expensive, and many moms need help balancing the academic and financial responsibilities. The importance of having a solid financial plan before returning to school can’t be overstated, and it’s especially true for the roughly 2 million students who are single parents.
Setting a budget
A budget must account for all expenses, including tuition, books and other supplies, as well as childcare expenses. Students returning to school as older adults may also benefit from establishing financial goals such as paying off debt, building an emergency fund or investing for the future. A solid budget can help reduce stress and provide a clear roadmap for success.
The average annual cost of tuition and fees for full-time undergraduate students at four-year institutions is $19,020, according to the Education Data Initiative. This ranges from $9,377 per year at in-state public four-year institutions to $37,641 per year at private, nonprofit four-year schools. Annual tuition for master’s degrees can cost a lot more, depending on the type of program.
While these costs may seem discouraging to moms wanting to go back to school, they have many options for paying for their education. Financial aid, grants and scholarships can help offset the cost of tuition, while careful budgeting and planning can help moms manage other expenses.
One of my clients is very passionate about health and wellness. She went back to school in her mid 50s to become a massage therapist while maintaining her full-time job as a technical writer. She was particularly interested in somatic massage, a therapy that focuses on the body’s nervous system and aims to help the body heal itself by relieving pain and tension. Somatic massage therapy is often used to treat conditions such as headaches, back pain, and neck pain.
In our meetings, my client shared her excitement for everything she was learning about anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and pathology. She wants to use her healing energies and powers to help others. I advised her to consult with her tax advisor and inquire about using a lifetime learning credit.
A lifetime learning credit enables taxpayers to reduce their annual tax bill by up to $2,000, depending on overall household income. There is no limit on the number of years a taxpayer may claim it. Per IRS guidelines, a lifetime learning credit is gradually reduced if modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) in tax-year 2022 is between $80,000 and $90,000 for single taxpayers ($160,000 and $180,000 if filing a joint return).
Retirement and financial goals
Going back to school often means taking a break from contributing to retirement accounts. This can have a big impact on long-term savings. However, moms who plan to work while going to school can take advantage of employer-sponsored retirement plans. Those who do take a break from employment can continue to save for retirement by opening and contributing to an individual retirement account (IRA).
One of my clients returned to school in her 40s to become a physician’s assistant. In preparation for her matriculation, I made sure that the family had robust cash reserves. They also took advantage of dependent care spending accounts to help with after-school expenses.
The Washington DC Metro area has some of the highest childcare costs in the nation. The Dependent Care FSA provided tax savings, which improved my client’s cash flow. The healthy cash reserve gave her the opportunity to continue saving for retirement while in school.
I also helped my client take advantage of a spousal Roth IRA while she was in school. Generally speaking, individuals need to have earned income to contribute to a traditional individual retirement account (IRA) or a Roth IRA. However, a married person can use a spousal Roth IRA, even if only one spouse is working outside the home.
I have also helped clients use tuition remission and the lifetime learning credit to gain new skills, such as data science and digital marketing. Tuition remission is a reduction in tuition offered to employees and dependents of qualified educational institutions.
How moms can pay for college
Paying for college can be a huge burden for moms who are already juggling family and work responsibilities, but several options are available to help cover costs:
- Grants do not have to be repaid. Many federal and state grants are available to moms returning to school, including the Federal Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). Help your clients complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to apply for these grants.
- Scholarships are awarded based on academic achievement, community service or other criteria. Many scholarships are available specifically for moms returning to school, such as the Soroptimist Live Your Dream Award and the Jeannette Rankin National Scholar Grant.
- Student loans are another option. Federal student loans typically have lower interest rates than private loans, and repayment plans can be adjusted based on income. It’s important for moms to carefully review the terms and conditions of any loans they are considering and make a plan for repayment to avoid excessive debt.
- Part-time or freelance work can help moms supplement their income while they’re in school and reduce the amount of student loan debt. To maintain academic performance, it is crucial to maintain a balance between school and work. Flexible work options can often make it easier.
- Tuition reimbursement may be available from an employer. Popular examples include Starbucks, Chipotle and Amazon. To find out whether your client’s employer offers this benefit, your client should speak to their HR department.
Balancing academic, family and work responsibilities
Managing these facets of life can be emotionally and logistically challenging, but there are strategies that can help moms succeed.
Time management is a critical skill for moms going back to school. They will need to determine the best ways to balance their academic, family and work responsibilities. This may involve creating a schedule, prioritizing tasks and saying no to certain obligations in order to focus on school.
Also encourage your client to build a support system — it’s essential for success. Moms returning to school should lean on their family, friends and possibly a mentor or coach for emotional and logistical support. Having a strong support system can help moms manage the stresses of balancing their many responsibilities.
When I prepared for the CFP certification exam, my son was 5 and my daughter was 7. My parents helped care for my children on Friday afternoons so I could study and attend CFP class at Georgetown University.
Making time for self-care
It’s crucial that moms going back to school while raising a family take care of themselves physically and mentally. That means making time for self-care activities such as exercise, meditation or therapy. Many people view these activities as frivolous, but they can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being, which is critical for academic success. You can also refer clients to therapists or suggest cost-free stress-reducing activities such as reading, taking a relaxing bath or spending time in nature.
Finding employment after graduation
Financial advisors can also guide moms as they explore their post-graduation employment options and help them make informed decisions about their career paths. For example, you may be involved in reviewing job offers, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and providing advice on salary negotiations. You can also help your clients assess the impact on quality of life and long-term financial goals.
When selecting an employer, it’s important to consider company culture, benefits, and opportunities for growth and development.
For instance, a high-paying corporate job may require longer hours and necessitate before- and after-school care for younger children. This can be challenging for moms who prioritize their family and work-life balance.
Working for a non-profit organization may mean a lower salary. However, non-profit roles typically come with family-friendly schedules, which may better suit moms with young children or aging parents. Employees who work for nonprofits may also qualify for public service loan forgiveness on their student debt.
While paying for college can be challenging, many resources are available to help moms achieve their educational goals. As financial advisors and CFP professionals, it’s our responsibility to help moms navigate the options and choose the best path forward for them. We can also help them figure out how they can better balance their academic, family and work obligations. As part of the financial planning process, we can help moms achieve their dreams and create a better future for themselves and their families.
Marguerita (Rita) Cheng, CFP, is the chief executive officer of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. She is passionate about helping clients navigate some of life’s most difficult issues — divorce, death, career changes, caring for aging relatives — so they can feel confident and in control of their finances. Rita is a past spokesperson for the AARP Financial Freedom Campaign. She volunteers her time as a SoleMate for Girls on the Run, raising money to win scholarships for girls.