Most parents shouldn't save for college.

It's a tough stance to take, especially in an era of ever-rising college tuition and crushing college debt. But hear me out before you accuse me of child neglect.

The simple truth is that most parents have more pressing financial needs to manage before putting money aside for education. They need to pay off their credit card debt; save enough to cover several months of expenses in an emergency; purchase adequate health, disability and life insurance; and be well on their way toward saving for retirement.

In this economy, how many families can honestly say they have all of those needs covered -- with money left over?

Yet some choose to save for college anyway.

In a recent Allianz Life Insurance Co. survey shared exclusively with the Star Tribune, 46 percent of parents said saving for college and retirement are equally important goals in their household. Nearly one in four respondents said saving for college was more important. Families with incomes of $25,000 or less were the most likely to place college savings before retirement savings, even though these families are the most likely to qualify for significant financial aid.

Many parents of modest means are in a tug-of-war between the rational side and emotional side of financial decisionmaking. While they may understand why saving for retirement is more critical -- you can borrow for college, but not for retirement -- their emotional side is pulling the heartstrings.

Katie Libbe, vice president of consumer insights for Allianz, described the common sentiment: "These are my kids -- I want them to have as much, if not more than me."

For many, it just feels selfish to place your own retirement ahead of your kid's education on the financial pecking order, said Darla Kashian, a financial adviser with RBC Wealth Management in Minneapolis.

"I think people end up having a certain amount of guilt [around college savings]," she said.

Think of the future

For families struggling to accept the idea of not saving for college, Kashian tries to assuage concerns by pointing out the role future cash flow will play in covering college costs. She uses her own young family of four as an example. They pay $2,000 a month out-of-pocket for child care. Surely, at least a portion of that money will be available to cover future college tuition bills.

Another exercise is to think about what old age will look like without retirement savings. "If you get to be 65 and haven't planned for retirement, your options are fairly limited," Kashian said.

Studies routinely show that a significant number of workers will be forced to stop working sooner than they can afford to. If you think your student having to take out college loans is a burden, imagine the burden of relying on their financial support for two decades in retirement.

Of course, financial planning is about more than numbers on a page. If making a significant contribution to your child's college education is a key life value, whether your balance sheet is in perfect order or not, consider the following two strategies.

•Open a Roth IRA and save as much as you can, up to the $5,000 annual limit. This account is designed for retirement savings, but has flexible rules that allow you to take the money you contribute out at any time, no questions asked. If you're in a crunch when the first college bill comes, you can tap the account. If you don't need the funds, continue earmarking them for your golden years.

•Open a 529 college savings plan. It's an easy way to set aside as little as $25 or $50 a month, although it's important to note that money in a 529 plan must be used for qualified college expenses. Even if you can't afford to save for college, having a 529 plan available for grandparents and other relatives to fund is a smart idea.

Ted Contag, a wealth adviser with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, said many of his older clients prefer to help fund education for their grandchildren than leave a large inheritance to their adult kids for fear they will spend it irresponsibly.

"It's difficult for the really good savers of that generation to see their kids' generation spending the way they do," he explained. "They would prefer to see the money used wisely."

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or Twitter: @Kara_McGuire