How to Talk to Kids About the Cost of College: 6 Steps

Alden Wicker

paying for college

It may just be the biggest expense of your life. Meanwhile, it’s the biggest four years of your kids’ lives. (Or so they see it.) So how do you sit down and calmly have the talk about paying for college?

First, know there are many schools they can choose from and many ways you can pay for a higher education. We’ll walk you through the process step-by-step to help you make the right choice for your finances and your family.

We spoke with Suzanna de Baca, VP of Wealth Strategies at Ameriprise Financial, to find out how she counsels parents. Read on to get some sage advice on how to not only choose a college now but how to set your children up for financial and career success later.

1. Start Early and Honestly

“A candid conversation with your kid about paying for college needs to start as early as possible,” de Baca says. That can even be as early as middle school. It can save you and your kid a lot of grief to set expectations early, instead of bursting her UNC-blue bubble right before she applies.

“If your kid is excited about or set on attending school outside your price range, have a conversation about whether that is realistic and what you as a family can do to make that happen,” de Baca says. It might not be as simple as saying no, because there are other ways to pay for college than with a 529 plan. We’ll get to more on that, below.

Paying for college is a huge financial commitment, which is why you should get help from someone who is well-versed in financial planning. Friends or family who have already sent a child or two through college could provide some tips, but they won’t be familiar with your financial situation. De Baca suggests working with a financial adviser, financial aid counselor or guidance counselor or even talking with your accountant and attorney.

Just remember that school counselors aren’t necessarily trained in matters of money. “They may have a lot of experience in planning for and selecting a college, but depending on their background, they may or may not give you good financial advice,” de Baca warns.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Reduce Those Steep College Costs

  • LJ

    What a fantastic article! So many graduates would have fewer problems if they and their parents went through these steps before taking out crippling amounts of student loans. I’m glad that this article advises weighing the major against the loans. While it’s great to be able to go to school for a subject you love, it’s not great to take out a lot of loans if you won’t be able to afford to pay them off.

    • Mimi Von Boom

      Lmao – make up your mind on whether or not it’s “acceptable” for people to use loans to finance a degree. Smh.

      • nkdeck07

        To finance a comp sci degree (50k on graduation with a robust job market)? Hells yeah. Finance a Russian Literature degree? No way

      • LJ

        My stance has and continues to be that taking out an obscene amount of debt (even if it’s for education) is not a good thing, especially if there is not a good monetary return on the investment.

  • Joanne Peterson

    Another option not discussed in the article is taking off a year of two to work for college.

    My son has excellent ACT scores, and was being pursued, but the scholarships were not enough. Due to life changes with my husband and myself, we no longer have money for college. My son is working full time with overtime and looking at another job knowing this is not the type of work he wants forever. The focus is saving for college. This also is a job where he will be able to transfer with the same seniority to another location so he would be able to work while in college.

    Another friend of mine has a son who has done the same and has to take out just minimal student loans. By the time her son is finished with college, he will have right around $18,000 of debt for four years of college.

    I do understand this may not be feasible for all majors and for all people and for all circumstances. This is another option.

    Three businesses that I know of who are very college friendly is Starbucks, UPS, and Taco Bell. I’m sure there are other businesses.

  • Camika Lopez

    Another way to avoid students loans is through the ROTC programs/ ROTC scholarships. Not sure if Canada, other countries have something similar; and It may not be for everyone ( since you will have to serve a few years in the military), but it’s what I used to graduate with no student loan debt.

  • Lawrene H Bottorf

    Great article…one NEEDS to hire a college admissions/financial aid expert…even the high priced high schools don’t know the financial policies of most colleges, and if one is thinking that a government high school guidance counselor will help…they can’t. It’s not what they do. Your independent college counselor will work with your financial planner on what you really CAN afford. But picking the right colleges are the most important way to get a great value… :)