Manage Expectations

We all want the best for our children. But what can you reasonably afford? If you’re struggling to save enough for retirement, it may be unrealistic to think you can also help with college costs.

If that’s the case, you should tell your children early on and preferably no later than the freshman year of high school. You don’t want your kids to spend years imagining they will go to a college that you simply cannot afford and that, even with financial aid, is probably out of reach. Moreover, if you tell your children in time, it will give them the chance to work part-time jobs and perhaps save a little money toward college costs.

Even if you can’t offer financial help, you can offer advice. For instance, if your children plan to pursue careers that won’t be especially lucrative, you should discourage them from attending a college that will necessitate taking on hefty student loans. Those loans could crimp their financial progress for decades to come.

What if you can help financially? Let your children know how much assistance you can provide and where you’ll draw the line. Many parents help with undergraduate costs, but tell their children that they’re on their own when it comes to graduate school. Have your teenagers check out TimeforPayback.com, an online game that shows the financial implications of college decisions.

You should also talk to them about any other financial help you will—or won’t—provide. If you can assist with a house down payment and a lavish wedding, that’s wonderful. But if that sort of help isn’t in the cards, you should say so. These financial conversations shouldn’t just happen when your children are teenagers and they shouldn’t be focused solely on the help you’ll give them in their teens and 20s. Once they’re adults, you might occasionally discuss your own retirement finances, how much they might inherit and what end-of-life decisions you would like made on your behalf.

Next: Save Something

Previous: Where We Stand: College Costs

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