Congratulations--your child is heading off to college. You're buying the essentials, including the mini-fridge, extra long sheets, and a shiny new laptop. For 18 years, you've taught, mentored and cajoled them into good study habits and social skills. But, speaking both as a father and a financial life planner, you haven't REALLY prepared your child for their new life until you've had some critical money conversations.
This is the time to set expectations and define some new boundaries for you both.
Conversation #1: The decision is yours.
Use this opportunity to set the stage properly for their independence. Talk about how they'll face decisions in the moment--like whether to buy the newest smartphone or videogame, pick up the pizza tab or take a last minute ski trip. Every decision has consequences in terms of the quality of their school experience and the health of their wallet.
This is the time to double down on your lessons about deciding what matters (and saving for that) vs. continuous instant gratification. And to acknowledge the ramped-up peer pressures they'll likely feel at college--including how to stick to their values while still enjoying the social aspects. (Hint: this lesson is about far more than navigating school years - well learned it will set your child up for a lifetime of good money decisions.)
Conversation #2: Budget is not a four letter word.
This is the detailed discussion around how much support mom and dad will provide and how. If you are planning to offer financial help to your freshman, you may consider giving them a debit card and loading it monthly with the agreed upon amount.
Talk to your child about what this money is designed to do. Is it to be used for books, food, phone and other necessities or is it also for social expenses?
Discuss what happens if they over-spend: Explore a few possible scenarios on this before your child meets them head-on. What happens if they use their monthly stipend on festival tickets and can't afford food? How will you handle unexpected expenses such as a car break-down or medical bill? What incidentals will you cover and which will be their responsibility? How will they fund those expenses - say from prior savings or getting a job?
This includes setting your own boundaries. Let them know that as the parent, you expect them to promptly and proactively communicate a mistake versus simply presenting a bill that's over the budget. Know that your child will over-spend at some point - that's how we all learn. I believe this is healthy and not actually a failure. Failure is if mom or dad steps in to rectify the loss and your kids never learn how to handle their own money like a grown-up. Don't let your gift to them become a lifetime of poor money management.
Conversation #3: Are you up for the challenge?
This is the perfect time to talk about the challenges they're likely to encounter and help them navigate them before they happen. Chances are you've already introduced the concept of hyped-up peer pressure. Hit it again in this conversation ... it's an ideal opportunity to reinforce the values you've instilled in them and offer some ideas on how to realize the best college experience for themselves.
Be candid about the temptations that abound at school--shopping sprees with friends, buying fake IDs and underage drinking, and eating out or GrubHub deliveries instead of utilizing a meal plan, among many other spending choices. Ask them about their dreams and fears around their new independence. And listen closely. Your most profound help to your child may simply be acknowledging their fears and excitement.
Conversation #4: Adulting is hard.
Setting expectations positions your child for a successful transition. So you want to stage these conversations as preparation for their lives after graduation.
Talk about money--mastering budgets especially--as a life skill. This is their chance to practice it in a low risk way before they're completely out on their own. And assure them that you want to help them learn. That as they grow, you'll increase their responsibility and decision-making--perhaps even providing incentives for the right behavior.
You may have some of these conversations more than once. Every kid learns at their own pace and so do you as the parent of a first-time college student.
By setting good boundaries and encouraging open conversations, you'll give your child a firm financial foundation for the rest of their life.