Can you truly afford to help your kids with college?

With student-loan debt at an all-time high, many parents are rushing to help foot the bill. But should they?

This question has been trending lately, and for good reason. Parents who help kids pay for college — but do so to the detriment of their retirement savings — may wind up trading one financial problem (their children's debt) for another (they may never retire).

A couple I met with recently provided the perfect example of how this happens. Ted and Linda were well into their 60s, lacking adequate retirement funds and wondering what to do next. They had refinanced their home four times and still owed about a quarter of its value, they said. They weren't sure they could afford to stay there, yet they would need to invest some money into remodeling if they hoped to sell.

The campus of Columbia University in New York City
Getty Images
The campus of Columbia University in New York City

The kicker is, the couple had been supporting their adult kids all along, paying some of their college tuition, ponying up living expenses and even putting gas in one child's car. These "kids," as they called them, were also 28, 26 and 21 years old!

For Ted and Linda, getting their kids through college was a goal they felt strongly about. To help them avoid debt, however, they sacrificed their own financial security.

This has become the new norm, said certified financial planner Joseph Carbone Jr., a wealth advisor at Focus Planning Group. "I am not sure when the mentality of parents and society shifted to the point where it's now the parent's responsibility to pay for 100 percent of all of their kid's education — but it has."

Carbone gets questions on paying for college from his clients all the time. Most of the time, the parents mean well and truly want to help. The problem is, they don't know how to draw the line between helping others and hurting themselves.

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As most financial advisors agree, there's nothing wrong with helping kids once your own financial house is in order. But how can you tell? Here are five signs you're probably in a good position to help pay for school.

1. You're on track with your retirement goals. According to financial advisor Joshua Brein, founder and president of Brein Wealth Management, your retirement should be fully funded or on the way to being fully funded before you consider helping kids with college. If you're not completely set for retirement, you should have a concrete plan to get there — and have automated monthly contributions set up.

Remember, retirement is a goal you can't put off forever. And if you wait long enough, it will be far too late.

"Students can take out a loan for college, but parents can't take out a loan for retirement," said Minnesota financial planner Jamie Pomeroy, founder of You're not helping your kids if you're setting yourself up to fail.

2. You don't have high-interest debt. If you're carrying high-interest debt, crushing your debt should be the No. 1 priority in your life. You don't want to reach retirement with credit card debt or personal loans, nor do you want to throw money away in interest payments. Also, you'll be in a much better position to help with emergencies later if you're debt-free.

The bottom line? Pay down debt first, then consider helping the kids.

3. You have a financial planner — or at least a real plan. When it comes to retirement and financial planning, gaining the insight of a third-party professional can help. No matter what, you need a plan to ensure you'll reach your own goals. Also, it helps to let your kids know where you stand — financially and otherwise. Communication is key.

"Schedule a financial roundtable with your adult children to help show them how this is impacting your financial life and goals," said certified financial planner Taylor Schulte, founder and CEO of Define Financial.

"I have seen parents making $500-per-month contributions to 529 plans and they are grossly underinsured." -Joseph Carbone Jr., wealth advisor at Focus Planning Group

If kids know what kind of financial situation you're in, they may be less likely to expect financial assistance.

4. You have plenty of life insurance. "I have seen parents making $500-per-month contributions to 529 plans and they are grossly underinsured," said Carbone of Focus Planning Group. As a fiduciary, Carbone advises those couples to cut their college savings in half and use the rest to buy a term life insurance policy, just in case.

"If a parent dies suddenly, a million-dollar death benefit is going to impact their kids so much greater than having $15,000 in a college savings plan," Carbone said.

5. Your children's college plans make sense. This decade has been filled with stories of kids who paid six figures or more for a basic college degree. As a financial planner myself, I advise parents to approach college financing with the type of caution they would take with any other type of purchase.

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Run the numbers on your child's college degree program of choice to see if it makes sense. Asking a lot of questions can also help you get your kids on the right path. Could your child earn this degree cheaper elsewhere? Are they steering clear of for-profit schools? What kind of financial aid is available?

At the end of the day, asking the right questions can cut down the costs of pursuing a degree dramatically. This preferred outcome can lead to fewer loans for the kids and less money out of your pocket, too.

Every parent wants to help their kid get ahead and avoid student-loan debt, but it's crucial not to forsake your own finances in the process. Remember, you can't borrow money for retirement. Also, it's far too late to make any changes once you get there.

No matter what, you have to put your own financial health first. Buying life insurance, getting your financial house in order and setting yourself up for a solid retirement will benefit everyone in your family — even your kids.

— By Jeff Rose, founder/CEO of Alliance Wealth Management