How to have ‘the talk’ about college costs with your teen

By the time your child starts high school, it's good to have the conversation about who will pay for college.
By the time your child starts high school, it’s good to have the conversation about who will pay for college.
(Alex Slobodkin / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A four-year journey to decide where to go to college ended for Sofie Adams when a college recruiter approached her after a softball game and asked, “Do you want to study abroad?”

“No one else had asked me that, and yes — I really do want to get overseas,” said Adams, 18, who considered several schools before taking an academic scholarship and an offer to play this fall for St. Lawrence University, a 2,500-student private college in upstate New York with a study abroad program.

Her father, Urban Adams, a financial planner based in Irvine, was delighted too. He also was relieved: The scholarship will pay the majority of his daughter’s tuition, and Sofie is the first of his three children, all of whom plan to enter college in the next four years.

Begin by the start of high school

Whether you have three teenagers or just one young one, planning is essential when it comes to the cost of education. Sometime after telling your kids about “the birds and the bees,” but before you hand over the family car keys, financial advisors recommend having the talk with your teen about who is paying for college.


The opportunity to study abroad was the last box Sofie checked as she narrowed her choices: a small liberal arts school with a strong softball team and business degree program, as well as four seasons of weather (unlike Arizona and Southern California, where she grew up).

That list didn’t exist when she first discussed college options with her parents when she was 13. “At that time, I barely knew what I wanted for lunch, let alone college,” she said.

But she learned her parents wouldn’t be footing the full bill, and realized her grades and her love of softball could hold the keys to attending the college of her choice.

“For Sofie, it probably started in eighth grade when she started showing some promise in softball, and seeing it as a potential opportunity for — and importance of — a subsidized education,” Urban Adams said.

“We would talk about it often,” he said, “and as time went on, preferences would change. And I would stress that I am not trying to save enough to pay 100% of their college expenses.”

Make sure they have some ‘skin in the game’

Adams’ reasons are both practical and philosophical. “With my three, because they are so close in age, it was really a moving target in terms of how much to save — will it be private, in state, out of state, some community college followed by state or private school?” he said. “We looked at it all.”

As a financial planner for Dynamic Wealth Advisors, he sees clients who want to tap their retirement savings to cover college costs — which can spell big financial trouble later in life. “There are loans available for paying for college,” he said. “There are no ‘retirement loans.’ ”

“I also believe that kids will take success [graduating] from college more seriously if they have some skin in the game,” he added. “If they bear none of the costs, they may not take it as seriously.”


Set realistic expectations

Your top savings priority should be for your own retirement. Save at least 10% of your income in an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) or a tax-advantaged individual retirement account, advisors recommend.

Next, open a college 529 savings plan. Like your 401(k) or IRA, a 529 plan can grow your money much faster than an ordinary savings account would. That’s why putting in even a little bit soon after your child is born is much better than waiting until you can put in more, as you have nearly 20 years to let compounding work its magic.

As your children get closer to high school, start including them in discussions and set realistic expectations about how much you can afford to help. Look at how much you have saved, and the picture of how much you can help begins to take shape. Your child’s choice of schools and whether your family qualifies for financial aid will determine how big a student loan your child might need.

Discuss other strategies for college funding

Besides targeting academic and athletic scholarships, as Sofie Adams did, there are other factors that advisors say students and their parents can consider:


• Apply for financial aid. Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, opened Oct. 1. The earlier you file, the better, as deadlines may vary by state or college to qualify for aid next fall.

• Attend community college first. Community college for the first couple of years is a low-cost way to start your education before transferring to a public or private university.

• Put a GPA requirement on parent contributions. Agree to a sliding scale of contributions based on your child’s academic performance and your budget.

• Split allowance with college savings. As your children get older, split their allowance so that half is theirs to spend and half goes into their college fund.


The last weekend in September, Urban Adams and his wife, Lia, traveled to St. Lawrence to watch Sofie play center field and bat leadoff in her first college game — and experience her first upstate New York fall.

“I’m loving it here,” Sofie said. “The classes are small, which I like, the team is great — and all the trees are yellow and red.”

She hopes to study in Denmark her junior year.

Kevin Voigt is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website.