College Students and Money: What’s a Parent to Do?

This is the first of a series of posts on college students and money that will run this week – check back each day for more ideas and information.

In the next couple of weeks, thousands of American parents will be sending their young adult children off to college or other training. I remember well the combination of excitement and fear that involved.  In the midst of all that excitement, I encourage parents to have some conversations with their young adult child about money.

In those conversations, I suggest parents avoid “telling” their child what to do. Students are of age, and are testing their wings as independent adults; attempts to control them may backfire and cause them to assert their independence by going the opposite direction.  

Instead, it may be more productive to open a discussion with a question like, “What are your thoughts about how much money you’ll spend apart from tuition, books and school supplies?” That gives them a chance to share their thoughts first, before you give your opinion. In fact, it may be best if you never share your opinion. Instead, you can help them anticipate the situations they’ll face and be aware of consequences of extra spending.

Talking about money with your children early and often is an important way to prepare them for the financial decisions they will encounter as young adults. Being prepared for those practical challenges will make it easier for students to succeed academically and socially during their college years. Ideally, those financial conversations begin in grade school, but if that didn’t happen in your family, don’t fret. Now is as good a time as any. And remember – the conversation doesn’t stop when they arrive at school. You will have plenty of opportunities to discuss these issues throughout the weeks and months ahead.

As you check in with your student during their college years, I encourage you to be intentional about creating opportunities for your student to share financial questions, challenges, decisions, and successes. Note that the goal is to create opportunities for them to share, rather than to simply pry into their finances. A helpful article from the University of Minnesota Extension suggests some excellent strategies:

  • Ask “what” and “how” questions that don’t mention money at first, but lead to a discussion about budgeting, smart shopping, and planning ahead. For example, ask “What kind of meals do you eat at school?” or “How do you find time to study and still see your friends?”
  • Share a topical news story or Facebook post. For example, say “I saw a Facebook post about a college student who used Kickstarter to pay off student loans. How does that work?”
  • Teach each other. Have your child show you how to download and use a mobile banking app such as while you explain the content. Source: University of Minnesota

Watch this week for more practical posts on helping students succeed financially during college. Up next: Let’s be smart about student loans. Later this week: credit cards and more!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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