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4 Tips for Having the Hard Financial Conversations About College

Hard Financial conversations about college

Many parents avoid talking about affording college until it’s almost too late. In this blog, I’ll highlight 4 tips for having the hard financial conversations about college, so you won’t have to put it off any longer. 

If you’ve already listened to episode #1 of the Self-Accepted podcast, you know we talked about what it looks like to be self-accepted… 

Each of us has a pair of good ole comfy blue jeans and a branded special pair of jeans. Both pairs of jeans are in your wardrobe. They are both you

So what does this have to do with having financial talks with your college-bound teenager? 

Well, they have encountered brand schools all their life. Sometimes, they feel like if they don’t get into those brand schools, then they won’t ever be successful. But what students might not have encountered are the schools that are prestigious and a good fit for their interests and your family’s finances.

Accepting Your Financial Situation

Part of ensuring that your student has the brightest future possible includes accepting your financial situation.

Just as your teenager needs to accept themselves before they get caught up with a college brand, parents need to know and accept their financial realities, limitations, and feelings. 

Working Through Financial Feelings

Did you know financials had feelings? Financials are an emotional topic. There’s… 

Guilt that you won’t be able to fund your child’s dream school.

… Shame that you’re a failure if you cannot provide everything

Fear to open up your realities to financial experts, thinking they might judge you by how you spend your money. 

There’s a lot of emotion. If you’re not honest with yourself and your financial advisor about your situation, you’ll risk making financial commitments that you and your student really cannot afford. This is one reason why we have a college debt crisis in our country. 

The Student Debt Crisis

Out of all kinds of debt – including mortgages and credit cards – student loan debt is rising the fastest. Many millennials are struggling to purchase a house, a car, or even afford marriage because of the burden of student loan debt. 

Your student’s bright future doesn’t have to be dimmed by financial hardship. 

We call our podcast Self-Accepted for a reason! 

It all starts with you accepting yourself and your reality.

Work with A Financial Expert

The best way to accept your financial reality, is to sit down with a financial advisor. My dear friend and former client, Raymond Van Buskirk is the Financial Expert at Bright Futures Consulting. He’s helped countless clients achieve their college dreams. 

In episode #2 of Self-Accepted, I asked Raymond how financial experts empower families to give students a bright future, without sacrificing their lifestyle or retirement.

Q: Why should families talk with a financial expert about affording college?

A:  Parents kill themselves to get their kid into an elite private school when in reality, an in-state public university may be as good or better, and is more affordable! 

There’s nothing wrong with either option. But parents are betting their future away – their golden years, their retirement. 

This can be avoided with good planning. 

Q: When should families start talking about their finances for college?

A:  Start in middle school or before if possible! 

Planning years in advance will allow you to take action early. You’ll be well prepared by the time your student graduates high school.

Talking about it early can also help families be more honest with one another. No one likes surprises – especially financial ones.

I’ve seen spouses hide their financial status and fib during a consultation, while the other spouse has no clue. 

Before you have the conversation with your teenager about what you can contribute, discuss with anyone helping make contributions to their future. Whether you are married, divorced, single and rely on family for help, everyone needs to be on the same page. 

After you and other contributors talk about your financial situation, you should also start discussing a financially strategic college and major list.


Want to work with Raymond? Learn more here and schedule a complimentary consultation.


Create A Financially Strategic College & Major List

After accepting your financial reality, coach your college-bound teenager to create a financially strategic college and major list. 

Q: What is a financially strategic college and major list?

A:  Think about what your teenager wants to major in. Families should make a list that considers the major matched with a list of universities’ reputations and earning power after graduation.

When considering these things, keep in mind your ability to pay back any loans taken out.

Figuring out financials isn’t just punching numbers into a calculator. It’s a balance of what you value, some calculator punching, and how it feels.

We break down how to create a college and major list with a clear example in episode #2 [09:12]. But here’s the gist of how to approach it …

Think back to the major your teenager is interested in.

Is it a high-return major like business, engineering or nursing? 

Or a low-return major like theater, music, art history, social science, or philosophy? 

Your student’s major and career intentions will swing what colleges should be on your financially strategic college list. 

How Does Fit Factor In?

Even when you create a college list that is financially strategic on paper, fit should still be a primary consideration. There are two main things families should consider when it comes to their student’s college list. 

1. Sense of Belonging

Students need to feel a sense of belonging at their university. They should feel like they have the right educational and social environment to make it through to graduation and beyond.

2. Academic Self-Esteem

Students also need to have academic self-esteem. They need to feel like they will be able to do the work. If the course load is too challenging, students may have to repeat classes, extending the time and money it takes to graduate. Make sure to align your student’s academic self-esteem with the rigor of a program.

Once you and other contributors have discussed your financial realities and have thought through a strategic college list, you should move onto having the hard financial talks with your teenager. Here are 4 tips to get you started…

4 Tips for Having the Hard Financial Conversations About College

Our 4 tips for having the hard financial conversations about college include: 

  1. Talk about spending habits
  2. Be prepared to have your boundaries tested
  3. Identify your family values and indoctrinate your teenagers with them
  4. Create plans A, B, and C

1. Talk About Spending Money

Start by looking at your teenager’s spending habits. This doesn’t have to be a conversation of blame or pointing fingers. It should simply be a casual, open-ended way for you and your teenager to talk about spending. 

This opens the door to teaching your teenager financial literacy so you can be confident you are raising an adult who values the dollar and the effort it takes to earn it.

Q: How can parents start to teach their teens about financial literacy?

A:  It could be a babysitting gig or delivering pizzas… Whatever it is, encourage them to make some money. Then hold them accountable by saying… If you want to go to the movies or out to eat with your friends, you need to make sure you have the money to do that. 

Summer jobs are also great for this! It gives them something to do and keeps them out of trouble. Plus, they are able to save a lot of money because they aren’t spending it. They don’t have time to! They are spending their time working. 

As parents, we have always had the responsibility of supporting our children. But as they prepare to go to college, they need to learn how to support themselves. They’ll need to adjust their taste in cars, clothing, and hobbies to their own (not their parent’s) budget. 

Q: Speaking of spending money, what is the “Mustang Scholarship”?

A:  Parents or grandparents often give this “scholarship out without much thought. Cars are expensive! It’s not just the initial cost; there are ongoing costs for insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking fees. These quickly add up on top of  what you’re already spending on their education. When parents send their college freshman to school with their Mustang – or whatever car they have, the initial college budget they set is rapidly exceeded! 

The alternative is not to let your son or daughter take the car to college right away. Instead, we suggest putting benchmarks in place so your teenager has to earn their car back. For example, you can set a GPA benchmark or scholarship goal for the second year of college. 

It’s just another tool to teach financial responsibility. 

2. Be Prepared For Tested Boundaries

You’re the parent. You set the boundaries in your family. But your teen will likely  test your boundaries. Don’t take it personally. It’s developmentally necessary for them. 

While they are testing your boundaries, know when your teenager is figuring out their identity versus isolating themselves. 

If you’re a conservative family with strong values, they may start behaving scandalously. If your teenager is more academically focused than the normal student, they may falsely become an underachiever. 

While supporting your teen as they push the boundaries is tricky to manage (as it can impact admissions), raising teenagers is a lot about managing risk. Make a safe environment for them to push against you as they figure out who they are. As they grow to know and accept themselves as an individual, their boundary-testing will subside.

3. Identify Family Values

Family values are a large part of many family conversations, including finances. Many parents that I talk to are afraid to have the hard conversations – whether it be about money, sex, relationships, or the future. 

Try allowing everything to be on the table for conversation. In my experience, talking about it doesn’t make it happen; however, not talking about it might. 

So, what are your family values? 

Once you’ve identified what your family is all about, don’t be afraid to indoctrinate your children. Indoctrination is “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically”. Tell them, “This is who we are.” Be sure to be thoughtful and clear about what you stand for. But, be wary about getting caught as a hypocrite. 

4. Create Plans A, B, & C

As with all big decisions, it’s imperative that you have plans A, B, and C. Feel free to get creative with them! 

Q: What are some financial plans that parents might create with their teenagers to afford college?

A:  Say you have a bottom line of $100,000. That’s all you can provide to your teenager for their college education. You may decide that there are the following options (a-c). Your teen could:

      1. Go to their “reach school” and incur college debt.
      2. Save by going to community college first and then transferring to a state school.
      3. Go to a middle-range school and work a part-time job. If they’re willing to work and accept some of the financial responsibility, they can be more flexible with their college choices. 

Q: What if plans A-C don’t work for some reason?

A:  When that situation arises, I ask my clients if they have thought about asking relatives for support. Think about that aunt or uncle that doesn’t have kids and has a strong relationship with your teenager. They may be willing to pitch into their college fund.

Just like choosing a pair of jeans, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to affording college. There’s no fear or judgement in getting creative


You can find more information about topics covered in this blog and financial aid forms in episode #2 of Self-Accepted: Guiding Families Through College Admissions & Transitions.

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