College Students and Parents: Align Your Finances and Your Goals

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Students going off to college are about to get a crash course they likely won’t find in their course catalogs: money. Parents can help them pass.

The start of college is a great time for parents and kids to talk things over so they get on the same page financially, says success coach Carlota Zimmerman.

Determining who will pay for what, learning how to budget or paying off student loans are all important, Zimmerman said. But it’s more than that.

It’s discussing what goes into getting a higher education that you can put to a purpose you choose, what classes to take, what the investment will be in time and money to earn a degree, and what you’ll use the degree for after graduation.

“It’s parents and kids understanding a college degree’s real value,” she said. “It’s a value for the whole family.”

Some are aware change is upon them.

“Whenever I got money I spent it on whatever I wanted to, but now I need to save money more than just blowing it,” freshman John McCarthy of Newberg, Oregon, said as he prepared to move into his dorm at the University of the Pacific campus in Stockton, California.

Be true to yourself — and honest with each other

The point of college isn’t to pinpoint your life but to open yourself up to the world of possibilities, Zimmerman said.

“Allow yourself to listen to yourself,” she said. “Going to college is a big step to becoming an adult. If you’re lying to adults about why you’re going, and lying to yourself, you’ll be miserable.

“If parents expect you to be a chemistry major, but in your heart you want to be a fiction writer, it will end in tears. You need to have this conversation.”

If you’re looking at investing in a bachelor’s degree mainly as a means to improve your future earnings potential, PayScale.com ranks the potential payback of college majors. Nine out of the top 10 in 2017 are in engineering, but No. 3 is actuarial science.

Not your parents’ college education

This generation of college students face a vastly different educational landscape and job market than their parents did.

In 1970, about 1 in 6 people ages 24 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree or higher; by 1995, that rate was nearly 1 in 4; by 2016, it was just over 1 in 3 — more than double 1970’s rate, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics.

“In today’s job market, having a bachelor’s degree is nearly a necessity to land a rewarding, well-paying job with any possibility for advancement,” PayScale says.

But a college degree is just a piece of paper if you don’t have a plan to put it to work for you, Zimmerman said.

“It’s crucial you study something you’re passionate about, whatever it is, but unless you invest the time to develop a plan for a career later, you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak — and debt. That debt can break your life.”

About 70 percent of students in the class of 2016 graduated with student loan debt — which averaged more than $37,000 each, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex, a college scholarship search website. That’s up 85 percent from what the New York Fed says was typically only a $20,000 debt just 10 years earlier. (Notably, the Fed report also says that a small group of high-value borrowers drove up that average. More than one-third owed less than $10,000, and nearly two-thirds owed less than $25,000.)

After graduation, you have to do what you must to pay your bills, Zimmerman said.

If you pursue your passion in school, seek mentors, get internships and network, you’re far more able to work in the field you love. Otherwise you may work in a job you find a drudge while you figure out how to become what you set out to be.

“Time passes quickly,” she said. “It’s harder to change at 30 than at 22.”

Degrees of cost

College costs range widely. For example, the 2017-18 cost of an in-state student attending, say, Westfield State University in Massachusetts tops $21,000 for tuition and fees, room and board, books, transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses; Texas A&M, $27,000; San Jose State, $28,200; UCLA, $34,000. For renowned private schools such as Stanford and Harvard, $69,000; Northwestern, $72,000.

Beyond tuition, fees, books, dorm and meal plans, these typical living expenses cited by colleges and others can surprise first-year students who end up spending about $4,000 a year on them:

  • Dorm furnishings, linens
  • Snacks
  • Laundry
  • Cellphone
  • Public transportation
  • Taxis/Uber/Lyft
  • Car insurance, gas, maintenance, parking fees
  • Entertainment
  • Gifts/special occasions
  • Travel home/getaways
  • Dining out
  • Clothes
  • Sorority/fraternity dues

Knowing where your money is coming from and going to and setting up budgets and spending plans and establishing credit are key parts of money lessons that will help during college and long after graduation. Kids also need know how to avoid scams.

But college can tempt you to spend money in ways you don’t expect. For example, you might find yourself rooming with someone from a family that is far more wealthy than your own.

“You’re meeting people and you want to impress them,” Zimmerman cautioned.

Resist the temptation to spend money trying to keep up with those who have more.

“Every dollar you save gets you closer to independence,” she said.

Facing your finances

Students and their families approach the realities of college finances in different ways. Some pay their own way; for others, it’s a family effort.

McCarthy, the University of the Pacific student, plans to major in mechanical engineering.

While scholarships will cover about two-thirds of his costs, McCarthy said Pacific provided reasonable-sounding estimates about school expenses so he could get student loans to cover the rest. He also worked to save money for personal expenses such as gas, laundry and entertainment.

He opened a checking account at a bank near home that also has branches and ATMs near campus.

To save costs, he plans to drive home for Christmas and summer breaks but not for Thanksgiving or spring break.

He’s majoring in mechanical engineering, which he enjoys and says is not as much of a niche degree as, for example, aerospace engineering, so he reasons that getting a job after graduation should be easier.

“I aspire to someday own an engineering firm that works to create more efficient, high horsepower automotive engines for street or track applications,” McCarthy said. “To get business loans, it’s more helpful to get a degree in the field.”

McCarthy said he and his parents didn’t have the “big talk” about money just ahead of leaving for college, but he learned a lot about money from them while growing up.

“I’ve always shared my thoughts about money and the choices we have to make,” said his mom, Deanna McCarthy.

Jack Kirby, an accounting major entering his junior year at California Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, California, works part-time as a tutor and swimming pool lifeguard. He opened his own bank account when he went off to school. He described how he handles his money.

“When I get a paycheck, I try to budget a third for spending money, a third for something I want to do like a concert, and the rest I sock away for something long-term.”

His mother, Jo Ann Kirby of Stockton, California, said money was a concern from the start in choosing a college, especially as Jack’s younger brother will be a freshman when Jack is a senior.

While Jack Kirby has a four-year merit scholarship covering part of his tuition and fees, his parents pay the rest plus “things we’d pay for if he were still at home,” his mother said.

“We don’t want him to be saddled with a bunch of debt,” she said.

Cashless on campus

While being close to fee-free ATMs still matters, college students are leading the pack in going mostly cashless at school.

They use their phones to pay for Uber rides and swipe their Venmo apps to pay each other, especially when chipping in for pizza, and for following what each other are up to through the app’s sharing abilities.

Venmo, which doesn’t charge for person-to-person money transfers, has gotten so common, it’s a verb.

“At first, I felt weird managing money through an app like that,” Villanova junior Amy Naslonski told her student newspaper, the Villanovan. “But then it got to the point where it was debilitating not to have it because there were so many times people wanted to Venmo me or needed me to Venmo them.”

It makes sense for parents to get set up on these tools, too.

“We send surprise money, like during finals week for takeout,” Jo Ann Kirby said. “It’s just fast, and you can put a message in there.”

Network now

Your first semester on campus may be frightening.

“It can feel like everyone else is making friends immediately, and you’re never going to make a friend,” Zimmerman said. “You’re not the only one.”

But if you make a plan while in school, prepare, network and get internships, you should be able to get a good-paying job in the field you love.

Reach out. Every hour, there are lectures, dinners, opportunities to meet other people.

And take advantage of your professors’ knowledge.

“Your professor became tenured because he or she had incredible networks,” Zimmerman said. Create relationships, speak up, and get what you need.

Network early and often to help set yourself up for success after graduation.

“You don’t want to be sitting around later worrying about how you’re going to make that first payment on your student loan,” Zimmerman said.

How are you helping to prepare your student for college and life beyond graduation? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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