What do you think is the number one “financial disruptor” — the most common event or situation people have experienced that has had a negative impact on their long-term financial plans? A health emergency? A lengthy bear market? Unemployment? Divorce?

To be sure, any of those would take their toll. However, according to a new national survey conducted for TD Ameritrade by The Harris Poll, today’s top financial disruptor is the cost of education. More specifically, student debt.

Top Financial Disruptors

Percentage of respondents citing the disruption.

Which of the following events or situations have happened to you and had a negative effect on your financial plans for long-term/retirement?


Education for self or dependent family member (e.g., student debt)


Loss of employment, lower paid job


Supporting others financially


Poor investment, business performance


Accident, illness, disability, unable to work


Divorce, separation, widowed


Planned family


Planned home

While the cost of education might be the most common disruptor, supporting others financially is, by far, the most impactful one, resulting in 80% lower median monthly savings or investments, according to the survey.

The survey also asked people what potential future threats they feared the most. Topping the list were concerns about how much the cost of living, and healthcare costs specifically, could rise.

What to do about such disruptors — or, even better, how to avoid them altogether? For education costs, the ideal would be to begin contributing a college savings account when your children are very young. (See Making the Most of Your College-Savings Program.) If you end up not being able to help cover the cost, your parenting instincts may tempt you to raid your retirement savings, but it would be better to have your kids take out student loans than to put your own financial future at risk.

If you're the parent of a college-bound high school student, do all that you can to help them understand the impact of student loans. According to one analysis, by age 30, college grads who are loan-free saved twice as much in their retirement plans than those saddled with student loans. To avoid that, encourage your son or daughter to weigh the cost/benefits of that out-of-state or private university they have their eye on, consider starting at a community college, and give serious thought to other ways of avoiding student loans.

For many of the other disruptors, having adequate savings on hand would go a long way toward helping. Keeping such savings in a separate account — not mingled with checking account money — is generally the best way to make sure the money willl be there if and when you need it.

What financial disruptor have you experienced and what, if anything, could you have done to lessen its impact? What potential future disruptors concern you?