How Do I Talk To My Parents About Our Money Situation For College?

By Taylor Burke

FamilyLesson Plan Guide

Asking your parents for a few dollars for gas can be tricky enough. So how do you broach the topic of money when thousands of dollars are in question?

How and when do you talk to your parents about paying for college? “Of course, the cost of college weighs heavily on my mind,” says Betty Ouren, parent of college and high school students who has no doubt “that it is worth the cost.” It’s a conversation that must be had, and the sooner the better. A common mistake families make is starting to discuss cost after their student receives acceptances.

When to do it? Now!

Education experts recommend that families discuss the generalities of affording college before high school, and that they talk specifics before starting the college search. “Try to talk to your parents early about how much money college should cost -- by your freshman or sophomore year of high school. This way, you have boundaries set before you really get into your college search,” advises Claire Gillespie, who attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “However, have financial-reach schools. Financial aid and scholarship opportunities, if pursued, can help your expensive dream school become more realistic.”

Talking before applying to schools can help families avoid surprises and hard decisions. “My parents and I did not talk about money until after I had applied to schools,” shares Gillespie. “My reasoning was that I would apply to any school I wanted and the financial end would work itself out. This does not necessarily happen in real life and left me with some very difficult choices when schools I applied to became too expensive.”

A positive, respectful approach

The conversation is best had upfront and full of honesty and respect.

“The budget and the possibilities have to be considered by the time it’s necessary to make decisions,” says Fabiana Aguilera, parent of a college and a high school student. “It’s not an easy conversation. There are many variables, and the high college costs today represent a huge weight for families and students.”

Pick a time when your parents are relaxed and not busy to have an initial conversation. Money is a stressful subject — even between family members — so approach the conversation graciously and without preconceived ideas.

Tell your parents about your dreams for college. Do you envision yourself going far away? Is your heart set on a private university? Or is community college more your style? Set the stage to ensure you and your parents are speaking a common language.

Now, listen. Ask your parents how they envision the costs being covered. Maybe they’ve saved since you were born. Or perhaps the tough financial climate prevents them from contributing. Whatever the case, be gracious. Don’t compare your situation to your friends’ circumstances. Leave the conversation with bonds built, not broken.

Research the options together

There are many ways to pay for college. Financial aid is available in the form of grants and scholarships for families who qualify. You can work with your parents to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what you are eligible for.

Many colleges award scholarships for academic or athletic excellence. You can also use websites such as to find scholarships awarded based on essay competitions, video submissions, or for students from specific backgrounds.

Loans are another common option. But be careful — loans accrue interest over time, so the more you take out, and the longer you wait to pay, the more they will cost you. It may also be possible for you to work to help pay for school. Most college students work during breaks to save money for the school year. It’s also possible to work during the school year. Look for jobs that permit a flexible schedule, and start slowly.

Students can “take responsibility for part of their loans, work part-time to share the burden of payments, and use their time wisely to finish school ASAP,” says Gustavo Schildknect, Aguilera’s husband. “They can also commit to be proactive, when the time comes, to look for jobs and internships by networking with instructors, family, and friends.”

Crunch the numbers, and have a plan B

Now that you’ve looked at all the payment options, work together to come up with a yearly cost that is comfortable. Research colleges with programs you’re interested in, and see if the costs are in your range. As you weigh the pros and cons of each school, factor in cost. You may really love one school, but will several thousand dollars in loans be worth going there? Maybe your second choice costs less, and that moves it up on the list.

You should also look into what career services each school offers. A school with a great career services center will help you launch your career by providing resume resources, interview practice, and connecting you with alumni employers in your field.

“Because college education can be a very large part of any family’s budget, the sooner the better to discuss which is the right school in relation to the resources available and the aspirations for the students,” says Schildknect.

If your dream school seems out of reach, don’t be discouraged, but establish a backup plan. Many students first attend a lower-cost community college to take their general education classes, then transfer to their dream school to focus on a major.

In these economic times, nothing’s certain. Your family’s financial situation can change as you prepare for and go through college, so keep an open dialogue. Talk with your parents regularly about money, keeping in mind the above tips for a stress-free conversation.

“In four years of college, it is impossible to predict 100 percent what is going to happen,” says Aguilera. “Interest rates, programs, opportunities, and the financial situation of the family can change. So, flexibility is necessary.’

Make it worthwhile

College is a big expense, but an important one. No matter what your financial situation, make sure you prove the worth of the investment— not only to your family, but to yourself. Go to class, study hard, get good grades, and join clubs.

“My kids’ commitment to school is all I need for gratitude,” Ouren says. “Getting good grades, caring enough to text me about those grades, and not wasting money on things like drinking or going out to eat all the time. That shows me they appreciate that I’m spending a lot of money.”

SIDEBAR: Putting the pieces together

Talking to your parents about money for college can be a lot easier if you prepare a little beforehand. Ask yourself the following questions; the answers should give you a better understanding of your parents’ perspective. Some questions are designed to help get you thinking about how your parents handle finances in general, while others should help you determine how familiar they are with the costs of college and ways to manage them.

  • Do your parents talk freely about family finances, or keep that to themselves?
  • Did your parents attend college? If so, public or private?
  • Has an older sibling gone to college or post-secondary training?
  • Have your parents experienced a job loss or other financial hardship in the past two to three years?
  • Have your parents talked to you about going to college?
  • Do your parents generally plan for the financial future (retirement, life insurance, etc.)?
  • Would you consider your family lower, middle, or upper income? 

SIDEBAR 2: Our Real Story writers offer advice on (and experience with) talking to your parents about money for college.

“Talk to your parents from the beginning of high school about what they have saved or what the plan is to fund for college. I talked to my parents early, and we set up a plan on when to apply for student loans, what scholarships to apply to and how to save money while I’m living away from home. It’s always good to talk to parents about this huge investment in your education as early as possible so there are no nerve-wracking moments during senior year when college apps are dominating your nerves.”

Natalia Naranjo

University of Texas at Austin

Hometown: Missouri City, Texas


“Talking about money with your parents is one of the most important things you can do while getting ready for college. This is something that I personally did not handle very well, and I was set back because of it. It is so important to be on the same page with your parents about where the money is going to come from, and who is responsible for it. ... Keep in mind that the financial decisions you make in regard to college are likely to stick with you for years in the form of student debt. ...There is good help out there, though. Just call the financial aid office at your prospective college/university, and they will normally be very helpful in answering any questions you may have. Just another reminder also, APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS. Even if you don’t think you will win them, or don’t even think you qualify, just fill them out. I won a few that I didn’t think I would qualify for, simply because there weren’t many others who applied. It is the best half-hour investment you can make. And don’t panic; just enjoy every step of the way.”

Jordan Harper

Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Mich.

Hometown: Niles, Mich.


“For any high school students, the talk about college finances should happen fairly early -- try around sophomore year -- to ensure time to save up or cut back on spending in the family. Parents are almost always willing to help, especially when it comes to your education. My parents and I spoke around my freshman high school year when we started a small college fund; it worked out and helped me with my college book money.”

Alyssa McComb

Flagler College, St. Augustine, Fla.

Hometown: Sarasota, Fla.


“I believe it is best to talk to parents when a student begins his/her college search. That way both parent and student have a better understanding of what schools the family can afford, which consequently means which schools a student can apply to. This is how my family approached my college search. It led to less arguing over financial issues and a better understanding of where I should be, come the following fall.”

Jordan Sweigart

Worcester College, Pa.,

and University of Oxford, England

Hometown: Reading, Pa.

About the Author

Taylor Burke