Relationship experts say that most couples argue–and break up–over money issues. Talking about money as it relates to attending college, I can tell you from personal experience, can also make your kids want to walk out the door. Or at least storm up to their rooms not to be seen again…well, until they want something to eat or clean laundry.

With all seriousness, I know that what I am suggesting is not for the faint of heart, especially if you have never really talked about money matters with your kids. But I am here to tell you as a higher education professional who specializes in working with first-year students, an open line of communication is an important part of the “growing up” process for your emerging adult.

While what follows is advice for your soon-to-be-a-college-student family member, it can also be modified for younger and older students.

Don’t know how to begin the conversation? Try these questions as starters.

1. What does going to college cost? What I mean by this is what is the total costs of attending college, purchasing necessary supplies, living (on campus or off), eating, and taking care of and entertaining oneself. One way to figure this out is to look at your college’s cost of attendance information. It usually resides on the webpage that includes tuition and fees. You will usually see books, transportation, and personal items included in the total. While the accuracy of the information may vary from your reality, it is a good starting point.

What you should say: Be honest about what it takes to live. Food can be expensive (even if you are using a meal plan). Entertainment can be expensive. This is a good time to talk about wants and needs. Your student needs books and supplies while they may want a top-of-the-line gaming system.

Why you should say it: If all you do is talk about the total costs of tuition and fees of your student’s degree, then it is a step in the right direction. Take it from a professor who assigns students to determine how much their total degree will cost, this information can be a game-changer in terms of helping students to stay motivated to graduate. 

2. Who is contributing what? After you talk about how much it will cost, it is logical to talk about how the bills will be paid. Your student may have family contributions, their own savings, scholarships, grants, and loans.

What you should say: Tell them where the money is coming from and explain what they need to do to remain eligible for the different types of financial aid. If they are on a scholarship, review the criteria for keeping it or renewing it. If they are taking out a loan or receiving a grant, remind them what they have to do to keep receiving it. Consider talking about the total amount of grants and loans they will be able to take. They need to know that the well doesn’t necessarily replenish itself.

This is also a good time to ask your student what they are contributing to the costs. I firmly believe that they should have some “skin in the game.” How much “skin” is up to you and the realities of their situation. My daughter, for example, is expected to pay for her books and incidentals her first year. This gives her a savings and earnings target for the summer. Now, she has to consider whether or not to go out with friends with her summer job money or put it away for the fall.

Why you should say it: They need to keep these criteria in mind as they set goals for their academic progress. If they do not realize that they must complete 67% of their attempted course with at least a 2.0 GPA, they may think they can drop or fail classes with little to no consequence.

3. What kind of budget do you expect for nonessentials? What I mean by this is what do you think is appropriate for a weekly “allowance” if your student is not working while in college. I have friends who have given their students everything from no money (they had to use their summer job money for anything other than books, tuition and fees, room and board) to $100 a week.

What you should say: This is where a longer conversation may be warranted. What do you expect that they will use that money for? Is it to allow them to get something from the corner coffee shop or residence hall vending machine in between meals or is it help them pay for transportation expenses from where they live to campus? You should ask your student to come up with a list of reasonable weekly or monthly expenses and then negotiate from there.

Why you should say it: This is a great opportunity for students to consider their wants and needs and to learn how to plan ahead. I remember not going out with friends on Thursday so I could save my extra money for Saturday night. It is a great life lesson about thinking ahead and spending wisely.

4. What will you do about emergencies? First, discuss what an emergency means to your family. For us, a flat tire or a broken laptop constitute emergencies. If it comes to safety or the ability to complete course work, we will figure out a solution. A late-night pizza  party for the everyone on the floor at the residence hall is not an emergency (trust me: this happened to a colleague of mine).

What you should say: This may be where you lead on defining what an emergency is and what your expectation is for paying for it. Consider going through a protocol for handling the emergency.  Will you give your student a credit card to handle it? Will you expect that they contact you first? All of these questions should be answered in this conversation.

Why you should say it: Things happen and being prepared for how to handle it when they come up is, again, part of the growing up process. Plus, your student will feel more confident knowing, for example, what they need to do should they get a flat tire or their computer takes a tumble down the stairs.

5. What are your family’s expectations regarding continued financial support? What do you expect in terms of actions from your student? Do you expect them to increase their contributions each year? Do you expect them to search and apply for additional scholarships? Will you encourage them to work part-time to help pay for expenses? All of these questions should eventually be discussed if not before you send them off this fall.

What you should say: If your student is on a scholarship or has taken a grant or loan, there will be expectations for keeping or renewing those streams of financial aid. If you are paying for some or all of the costs of college, you may consider asking your student to keep you informed about grades and progress and information they receive about filling out forms and registering for the next semester. They may need to be reminded that the college or university will communicate with them about all matters regarding financial aid, tuition payments, registration, and grades.

Why you should say it: Setting expectations for your continued support or their continued enrollment is a vital part of the process. Unlike high school, where re-enrollment each semester was more or less automatic, college requires meeting certain requirements, meeting with advisors, and setting up payment plans or filing for financial aid on a regular basis.

If your student is still in the room and speaking to you after you initiate these conversations, then consider yourself successful! If not, know that you may have to circle back to some of these questions in time. They will eventually be grateful.

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