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Recently, I've seen a wave of articles about things that you should teach your children before they leave for college, which is no surprise considering the time of year. None of the authors give any advice that I find objectionable. Nobody is advocating telling your children that school loans are fun or that you should extend your children endless credit. Kudos to all you financial professionals out there.
However, the problem with writing now about what you should tell your children before they go to college is that the ship has sailed—at least for the parents for whom the advice is most relevant. That's why I'd like to give parents of newly departed college students a bit of advice on formulating a war plan now that your children are out of the home and out of your control. Here are just a few things you can still do with your children even though they are already away.
1. Talk with your children regularly
If you're going to have any positive influence on your children at all, the channels of communication will need to remain open. You don't necessarily need to be talking about money with your college kids all the time, but you most certainly won't be talking about money with them if there's no talk at all.
I won't tell you what "regularly" means. Based on your experience with your child, you need to define what that frequency is. Some kids don't care to talk to their parents that much, particularly as they explore their newfound independence. Other kids will be desperate for you, hiding in their dorm closets to sob. Just find a rhythm that suits the dynamic of your relationship and stick to it.
As you talk, stay attuned to your children's concerns, particularly as they relate to money. If your kids talk about how lousy their apartment is, this discussion may be a natural opportunity to talk about exploring other options while keeping rent within the budget. If discussions revolve around weekend activities, you can ask your kids without judgment how they feel about the amount of money they have available for having a good time.
2. Balance support of your children's educational choices with conversations about how those choices will play out down the line
Quite possibly, your children will not be settled on a major before entering college. And once your kids settle on a major, there's a 75% chance that they will change it before graduating. In other words, you're bound to have a discussion or two about how to choose the right major.
I used to not have much of an opinion regarding the right major. Go ahead and get that basket-weaving degree you've always dreamt of. But now I feel like we all need to be studying engineering. I honestly don't care which type. It's the way that it makes you think and the marketability of the skill that concerns me.
If you want to study the humanities, sure, go ahead. But do yourself a favor by doing a second major in engineering so that when your humanities degree doesn't get a you a job, your engineering degree will. Or, if you turn out to be an incredible artist or musician or writer or sculptor or food critic, you'll run circles around competitors exactly because of the way that an engineering education forces you to be more methodical in what you do. (In full disclosure, I do not have an engineering degree and would have been better served had I combined one with my particular humanities degree.)
That being said, if you tell your kids what to study, you're likely getting nowhere. You're better off taking a deep interest in what your children decide to study and then asking sincere questions about the path that they're going down. Get your children to think critically about their educational decision by asking about whether they've taken advantage of the school's career services office. Offer to introduce your children to any of your friends who work in your children's area of interest.
What you're doing by helping gather information is providing your children with as much insight about future work opportunities as quickly as possible. Lead your children to that information without forcing it down their throats. If you do everything you can to make your children informed, they'll more likely feel inclined to ask you whether you think the idea is a good one to start with. Those of you who initially have doubts may change your own minds in the process. Or you'll have accelerated the rate at which your children will figure out that a degree in shark baiting, though exciting, is probably not a wise choice.
3. Keep your children updated on any important financial developments in your own life
This last suggestion may make you uncomfortable, but you want your children to open up about their financial decisions, accomplishments, and challenges, you're going to have to open up about your own. Tell them about how far you've come with the mortgage, career decisions you might be going through at work, or insurance issues.
Your kids are reaching an age at which they will start thinking about these matters, and they will do so without your prodding them. By starting to talk with them about your own thought processes in such decision making, you demonstrate to them that you feel comfortable talking about money.
Although it may be difficult, it might be a good thing to open up about some of your own financial stresses so that your children feel like they are coming of age. It shows them that you recognize that they are growing up. They may even have some valuable insights of their own.
There you go. Pick up the phone and start the conversation. Don't force it, but do create a climate in which money discussions are more likely to happen.