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Balancing Act: Affording college in a crisis

Lee Taylor, a college senior, had every intention of going to grad school. But the state of the economy has her rethinking that plan.

"I don't know how I will pay for it,'' Taylor says.

The country's financial crisis is causing Americans of all ages to reconsider major life decisions. Many of them are taking a deep breath and trying to figure out whether the dropping values of their savings plans, bank accounts and credit lines mean they will need to work longer, harder or take other unexpected routes.

Taylor, an American sStudies major at Eckerd College, always planned to get her master's degree and teach. But in this weak economy, she is reluctant to take on student loans to pay for graduate school. "I'll probably be getting a secretarial job just to make ends meet.''

Even as experts caution investors not to panic, that's a natural instinct. In some cases, parents find themselves reconsidering longtime plans for sending their kids to college. Ben Stewart, 48 and the father of two high school students, said his recent brokerage statement shows his kids' college savings accounts have dropped 30 percent in the past few months.

Next month, his high school junior will take the SAT college entrance exam. Stewart says he never thought his kids would have to consider student loans or depend on scholarships to pay for the college of their choice.

"I think the stock market is the right place, but I'm going to pay closer attention,'' he says. Meanwhile, he plans to continue working hard and contributing to the accounts. "I still have two to three years to recover.''

Experts say boomers with kids near college age have deep-seated beliefs about their kids getting Ivy League degrees and how they will bear the cost. But now, they may have to consider public universities, having their kids take out loans, work their way through school or even dip into their own retirement funds.

Andrew Horowitz, a Weston money manager, cautions Taylor and Stewart to be careful about making long-term decisions based on short-term events. "In an environment where it's more competitive to get a job, a person will need as much education as possible,'' he says, urging Taylor to go to graduate school. "Beg, borrow or steal to continue in that direction, unless it's 100 percent impossible.''

Like Stewart, Horowitz himself has teens whose 529 College Savings plans are down 15 percent in the recent quarter. "It worries me,'' he admits, adding that he will seek out loans, grants, scholarships. "However you have to get your kid into college, you have to give them that opportunity.''

Especially, he adds, because older workers are staying in the job market as they see their retirement dreams falter. A new report from AARP finds that 13 percent of Americans 45 and older are tapping into their retirement accounts, or other investments, to cover day-to-day expenses. It also found that 20 percent have stopped contributing to retirement accounts during the past 12 months, which is further jeopardizing their long-term retirement dreams. And, there are millions who are unable to saving for retirement at at all.

Just last week, Charles Brasie, a facilities engineer, sought a meeting with his employer's 401(k) administrator. At 66, Brassie says he retired once in 2001, then went back to work when a good offer came his way. Now he worries he may have to delay retirement again. "I'm in the scared category. I don't want to lose money, but I do have grandkids I want to spend time with up north.''

In a conversation with a former co-worker, public relations professional Mark Sell told me he has postponed retirement indefinitely. "I can't even think of a 63-year-old retirement,'' says Sell, sayswho is 57. "I think this is going to take some years to recover.'' Accepting this realization, the father of two teen girls has vowed to focus more on his health, spiritual and mental well-being.

"I'm exercising, eating healthy. ... I need to stay as productive and creative as possible for as long as possible.''

Horowitz, author of The Disciplined Investor, says anyone considering delaying retirement should consider what would happen if they didn't have a choice, such as a layoff or serious illness. "They need to figure out retirement based on the current numbers.''

He also cautions against holding on to a portfolio and hoping for the best. "This is not the end of volatility.'' The ideal portfolio, he says, should include a decent amount of cash and investments that perform inversely to the market, not just stock or mutual funds.

"People have to come to grips with change,'' Horowitz said. "Now is a wonderful time to slow down and do some life planning.''