Tips for Talking to Your Child about Paying for College

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As you cuddle your newborn, you likely dream of how you’ll lavish your child with anything and everything for a “good life.” As you gain more parental experience, you’ll likely soon realize how much your child learns from finding out how much he or she can personally do. Instead of handling everything for your child, your goal may become gradually providing opportunities for your child to be involved in making his or her own choices and learning to handle money responsibly—while you’re still available to give advice and support. By offering your child a variety of experiences and instilling lessons and values at the same time, you’re giving your child the best preparation for that “good life.”

Of course, one of the major milestones for which you want to prepare your child is leaving home to attend college.  Often parents will invest in college savings accounts, such as an NC 529 account, to help with college expenses. At the same time, they may also expect the child to shoulder some of the college-related financial responsibility. Involving the child in saving for college early will help him or her picture college in the future and to learn more about the value of planning ahead and handling money.

These tips may be useful and you and your child look toward college:

Teach the value of money and good saving habits early on. Start your child out with an allowance as soon as he or she is old enough to understand the concept. Then, with an allowance and, possibly financial gifts from grandparents or other family members, talk with your child about the idea of saving and the cost of things he or she may want. Maybe encourage the child to put a certain amount of whatever’s received into a savings account so he or she experiences what it means to make choices and to save. Understanding the cost of things and having to save for something will be a good lesson.

Begin conversations about the cost of college in early middle school. While the child may not be quite old enough to truly understand the cost of college or any role in paying for it, helping him or her become familiar with the idea that college is important and that it’s a substantial investment sets the stage for the child to ask questions and be interested in more in-depth discussion later.

Support your child’s academic performance. While your child is still young and living with you, continue to guide him or her toward academic success. Might help increase the possibility of obtaining an academic scholarship down the road.

By the end of middle school, begin talking about all kinds of scholarships. Most children don’t know what scholarships are or understand that scholarships can be tied to academic success, other types of performance, certain special characteristics, financial need, and more. Though not every child can win a scholarship, learning about them and realizing he or she might be able to earn one can give them incentive to try. Certainly, it’s a good time to look together at where to find scholarships and how much they might mean in helping pay for college.

Be honest about what you expect. Once your child is old enough to understand the cost of college and the possibility of his or her helping to pay for higher education, start a discussion. Periodic conversations give a child time to think about college and the necessity of paying for it. Talk about planning ahead and have your child come up with ways to contribute money to help with the cost—such as babysitting, cutting grass, or walking a dog. Your child then feels part of the process and gets a better understanding of the importance of putting earnings into savings for the future.

Encourage your child to plan. As your child gets older, you might encourage creating a list of all possible scholarships and mapping out a schedule for working through the applications. Help him or her break the list into manageable time blocks and view the search as a part-time job. But both of you should explore other ways to pay for college too—grants, work-study, campus jobs, and loans. CFNC.org can help.

Work on budgeting together. Once your child has a part-time job, work with him or her on learning how to budget. Create a plan together that allows your student to enjoy things happening during their high school days, but also sets some earnings aside for future college bills.

Discuss the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). By high school, students will start hearing about the FAFSA. This federal form is what should be filed to determine a student’s eligibility for receiving financial aid based on need. Both a parent and the child need to complete the FAFSA since the parents’ tax information is needed. When it is time to actually file the form (on or after October 1 of the child’s senior year of high school—and the sooner the better) you and your child should first get a Federal Student Aid Identification (FSA ID) and then complete and file the FAFSA. If the student qualifies for financial aid, there will be additional resources to help pay for college. A new FAFSA must be completed every year the student is in college. As you and your child go through this process, discuss what financial aid options will mean during college and, if loans are part of the aid, how repaying them after graduation factors in.

Talking to your child about paying for college is a long-term conversation to be held over many years.  Begin by seeding healthy ideas about fiscal responsibility and then watch those seeds grow to full-fledged financial planning discussions during high school. When you spend time in these discussions, you’re helping smooth your child’s transition from relying on Mom and Dad’s paying the bills to becoming confident with his or her own personal long-term fiscal responsibility. Good job!