How to Talk to Your Parents About Paying for College

The time has finally come. After touring countless college campuses, spending hours writing your application essays and waiting anxiously for those acceptance letters, there’s only one thing left to do: have “the money talk” with your ‘rents. Although talking about how you’re going to pay for college with your family may be awkward, it’s an important part of the college process that too many high school students overlook. Luckily, we’ve talked to collegiettes and experts alike and broken it down for you step-by-step!

Why it’s important

Paying for college is one of the biggest investments you’ll make in your lifetime. As pre-collegiettes, it can be hard to navigate financial terms, paperwork and other important information when you haven’t had to deal with it before. Even if you’re planning on paying for college on your own, your parents can serve as a valuable resource to guide you through the financial process. However, you’ll never know what advice or input they have to offer if you don’t ask.

“When it came to college apps, my biggest mistake was not talking to my parents about money before applications were due,” says Rebecca Shinners, a senior at Boston University. “I just assumed that because I’d worked so hard in high school, we’d be able to make it work. But when I was accepted to my dream school, my parents sat me down and told me I couldn’t go [because it was too expensive]. I was hysterical.”

Unfortunately, Rebecca’s story is all too common. Many high school seniors get so caught up in the admissions process that they fail to consider the financial impact that going to college will have on themselves or their family.

“[Having the money talk with your parents is important] so that [you] don’t waste time looking at colleges that have no shot of giving [you] the money you’ll need,” says Scott Weingold, the cofounder of College Planning Network. “Why waste time and create a lot of stress and frustration by looking at schools, falling in love and then finding out there’s just no way it’s ever going to happen due to financial constraints?”

Talking to your parents about your financial situation as early as possible can help prevent surprise or sadness later on.

Starting the conversation

Because talking about money isn’t always a light conversation, it’s important to bring it up at a time when your parents aren’t distracted and you have their full attention.

“There’s no ‘easy’ way [to start the conversation], but it has to be done and it should begin as early as [your] freshman or sophomore year at the latest,” Weingold says. “Both student and parent(s) need to be on the same page early on in this process so that when the student begins looking at schools, they are only looking at schools that have a good shot at meeting their financial ability.”

Whether they’ve mentioned the financial topic to you before or you’ve been handling the college application process on your own, ask your parents if they’re willing to set aside some time to sort things out with you. A simple, “Can we talk about college?” at the dinner table may be enough to break the ice.

Questions to ask

Once you have their attention, it’s important to be prepared with a few key questions. If it’s easier for you to remember questions by writing them out, jot them down on a Post-it and bring the note with you. Start with something broad, such as, “Have you thought about our financial situation in terms of college at all?” Getting an idea of how much preparing they’ve done can give you an idea of how much preparing you still need to do.

Your parents may tell you that they’ve set aside money in a college savings fund. If so, it’s perfectly okay to ask how much they’ve saved. You can compare this amount to the cost of attendance listed for each school on the College Board website, and then get an idea of what schools are in your range financially. However, don’t be daunted by the giant price tag of your dream school—there are plenty of financial aid and scholarship options to pursue!

You might be unsure about whether or not your parents have started a college savings fund. If so, your next question may sound something like, “Have you thought about how I am going to pay for college?” This is an important question to ask because it can result in a variety of answers. Maybe they’ve saved enough to pay for all of your college costs, or maybe they’ve saved for a portion and are planning on having you cover the rest. Or you may be financially independent and planning on paying for college yourself. In any case, you’ll want to ask them about taking out loans as well. It’s important to focus on schools that are in your range financially, “whether through cost or through a historically high financial-aid-awarding process,” Weingold says.

Regardless of your financial situation, it’s important to make sure everyone involved is on the same page. Once you know who is paying for college and you have an idea of how much each person involved will contribute, you can move forward with important financial aid documents.   

Handling financial aid documents

Nearly all college counselors, admissions experts and teachers will tell you that the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the most important financial aid document of the college application process since it’s an online application for federal financial aid.

“You can’t even be considered for aid unless you go through this process,” Weingold says.  “And even if you don’t think you’ll get [any aid], you can often times be very surprised – so always, always, always will out a FAFSA form, regardless of income. Some schools won’t give you merit-based aid unless you go through the process, [and] your situation may change, or you may have multiple students in school at the same time, which changes things [financially].”

By filling out the FAFSA, the government can get an idea of your family’s income and financial situation. They consider factors such as your personal income, your parents’ income, the amount of siblings you have and other factors in order to determine how much need-based aid you will receive.

“[Need-based aid] will be given if the student’s family income qualifies them for getting help to pay based on how much money their family makes,” says Michelle Podbelsek, a college counselor at College Counseling Associates.

You can begin filling out the FAFSA online now, and, depending on where you live, it may be due as early as March. The FAFSA website lists due dates according to each state. Ask your parents when they are available to help you complete the FAFSA, as it will require them to reference many important documents such as their income and tax records.

Once they’ve gathered their income and tax records, sit down and complete the FAFSA together so they can answer any questions you may have and confirm the information you’re entering (such as social security numbers). While it may seem like a daunting task at first, the whole form can be filled out in one sitting.

Aside from the FAFSA, there are other ways to get financial aid. The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is an online form available through the College Board website. By filling out the form, you can apply for nonfederal financial aid from over 400 colleges and scholarship programs.

These scholarships are a crucial element of the financial aid process. Unlike loans, scholarships do not have to be paid back.

“Scholarships are merit-based aid based on talents or academic achievements,” Podbelsek says. “If an applicant has high grades and/or test scores compared to the profile of that college, then the college may offer them merit aid to attract them to go there.”

As a high school student, there are several ways in which you can apply for scholarships. The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE can help you find scholarships on a national level. A specific college may invite you to apply for specific programs after viewing your initial application. Additionally, your high school counselor can direct you towards scholarships available for local students.

Following up

Since college is paid for by semester or on an annual basis, it’s important to remember that the money talk isn’t a one-time conversation. Instead, be sure you’re communicating with your parents on a regular basis about any changes in your financial situation—such as a new job, the loss of a job, an increase in tuition costs, studying abroad, etc. The earlier you talk to them, the more time you have to plan ahead and avoid crises!

Once you’ve talked to your parents about your financial situation, college savings, the possibility of taking out loans and financial aid documents like the FAFSA, you should have a better idea about where you stand financially. As your acceptance letters begin to roll in and you move closer to a final college decision, you can have individual conversations about certain schools with your parents in terms of finances.

“Just keep the constant communication flowing,” Weingold says. “Possibly set up reoccurring ‘college’ meetings every month or two with [your] parents just to check in and to continue to operate on the same page.”

If you’re having trouble getting through to your parents after several attempts, don’t be afraid to reach out to a college counselor at school, who can help you answer many of the same questions and offer further suggestions for talking to your parents. While money is an important part of the college decision process, it shouldn’t hold you back from pursuing the school of your dreams. Best of luck out there, pre-collegiettes!