When I arrived at college my freshman year, my approach to finances could best be described as bumbling. I knew my parents couldn’t afford to offer much monetary support, but we never had a formal arrangement about who would cover what. I tried my best to be responsible for all my expenses, and they tried to bail me out if I got into trouble.
Not surprisingly, experts recommend taking a more proactive approach to navigating finances with college-aged students. While college is a time for them to learn to live more independently, there’s a good chance you’ll still be helping them in some way. Here’s how to balance financial support while teaching independence at the same time so you can prepare your teen for financial success in college.
DECIDE WHAT FINANCIAL VALUES YOU’D LIKE TO INSTILL
You’ve likely already discussed high-level expectations about how you and your student will share the financial responsibility of paying for college so that you could both plan and save for it. But now that the moment is here, it’s time to lay out the specifics, and think about what financial values you want to instill.
When Joanna Nesbit and her partner had this conversation with their two daughters, they decided that they wanted their children to learn financial responsibility but also be able to focus on school and the experiences available to them. This desire dictated how much financial support they offered their girls, currently a freshman and a senior.
“We value part-time work to help out, but we don’t want them to be completely stressed about money,” says Nesbit. “I paid my own way through [college] and missed out on many opportunities and worried constantly about bills.”
Ultimately, Nesbit and her partner decided they would cover housing and tuition, with a 10 percent contribution from their daughters. The students would be responsible for all books, travel and other personal expenses so they could learn to budget and save up for larger expenses.
Whether you’re covering the full cost or a portion of your child’s college, be honest and upfront about what you expect in return. Maybe it's a certain grade point average, attendance record or a standard of general behavior.
Holding them accountable means they’ll be just as invested in their success as you are.
You may also decide an allowance or “bonus” can be earned for meeting certain goals, not unlike performance-based pay. Holding them accountable means they’ll be just as invested in their success as you are.
CREATE A BUDGET
After you’ve talked about expectations, it’s time to run the numbers. For Kari O’Driscoll, whose daughter just finished her freshman year, that meant discussing how much money had been saved for college and helping her daughter understand what that could cover.
“I am open with my girls about how much money is left in their 529 accounts and let them know what the projections are as far as when the money will be gone,” says O’Driscoll, who also has a 17-year-old in high school. This way, they can make informed decisions about expenses.
In addition to talking about tuition and room and board, parents and students should discuss discretionary spending. Working with your student to set a monthly budget can help them stay within their limits while also giving them autonomy over their spending. Then, when the money is gone, it’s up to them to figure out what to do, whether that means dining hall meals until the end of the semester or getting a part-time job to make up the difference.
ADJUST WHEN NEEDED
No matter how much planning you’ve done, both parents and students should anticipate that they’ll need to adjust their budgets, especially during the first year of school.
Meal plans and bookstore bucks tend to run out more quickly than anticipated — especially when everything is so new.
Kids will likely make financial slip-ups in college. After all, it’s the first time many of them are making their own financial decisions (even if it is with mom and dad’s credit card). Discussing consequences without blame or shame allows them to learn from their mistakes and make better decisions moving forward.