Personal Finances for College Students

As thousands of students head for college, many for the first time, many others for their last year, what, as parents, do we hope they learn? Obviously, we want them to get a good education, one that will allow them to get a good paying job with opportunities for personal and financial growth. That’s why the government offers discharge student loans by students who want to help with their financial needs in school.

But what would you like them to learn beyond that? What I have found is most often missing from the college education is experience in personal finances. In too many cases, parents are simply paying for tuition, room and board, books and fun money while the child learns nothing about money management. Finally, upon graduation, the child is thrust into the real world without the tools to thrive. The result is enduring many years digging their way out of early financial mistakes or, in many cases, coming back home to live where life is easy and cheap. A better alternative is to use the quasi-independence of college life to teach your child how to manage his or her finances. Now, when mistakes are made, it’s under your supervision and you’re able to help them learn the lessons needed to succeed. Here are 5 tips for providing your child a personal finance education:

  • Start with a budget. Sit down with your college student and together work through a budget for the school year. Once you have the school year planned out, break it down into bite sizes…week-by-week. For a sample College Budget, visit the Resource Center at; click on ‘Links’; then click on ‘Budget for College Students. 
  • Give them the money. Set up a joint account with your child so that you can monitor their spending but fund it either monthly or quarterly based on the budget you’ve established. They’ll now be responsible for paying all the bills, including tuition, room, board, books and discretionary spending. If you want them to have a credit card, start with a debit card and make sure they track all debit card purchases in the checkbook register along with checks written while keeping a running total of their checking account balance. An excellent free electronic resource is
  • Be a good coach. Think of what you admire most about your favorite coach (in any field). Their number one characteristic is probably not criticism. It’s more likely to be encouragement and support. You’ll want to monitor your college student’s progress closely in the beginning. In my experience, it takes two years to become a master budgeter so give your child a break and help them up when they stumble.
  • Let them help. In my experience working with families for over thirty years, children who helped pay for college have a much greater appreciation for their education than those who got a free ride. Consider having them work part time or summers to save money for part of college costs. This may be as simple as empowering them to earn their ‘play’ money while you fund the basic costs of college. One way to ‘earn’ money is to get a scholarship. There are thousands available, some just for the asking. Visit the Resource Center at; click on ‘Links’; then click on ‘College Scholarship Search Engine’. 
  • Have them set goals. In a decades-long Harvard study, the 4% of graduates who consistently set goals later created ten times the wealth than the remaining graduates combined! College goals might include building an emergency reserve, finishing college debt free, building a savings account or saving for a college abroad program.
We’ve all heard the wisdom of ‘feed a person a fish, and you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime’. Use your child’s college experience to teach them the money management skills they’ll need to excel.