Having the college money talk

Fidelity's Jennifer Wines on the importance of discussing family money values.

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Key takeaways

  • Regardless of how much (or little) a family may have, many just don't have conversations around money.
  • College serves as a great milestone to invite thoughtful and intentional family discussions around money values.
  • These conversations enable the next generation to carry the torch forward, in an informed and empowered way.

Student loan debt has had a huge impact on my financial life. As the first person in my family to go to college in the United States, my parents weren't able to provide me with the guidance necessary to thoughtfully navigate the educational landscape and financial burden. By the time I graduated, I was in 6-figure debt.

Fast forward to now, I'm over a decade into my professional career and I am still paying off this financial burden.

The financial literacy deficit

One thing I learned through working with families is that financial literacy is missing in a lot of family conversations. Regardless of how much (or little) a family may have, many just don't have family talks about money.

On one end of the spectrum, in families like mine, there just wasn't the knowledge to pass along. The whole process was a learning curve for me. I showed up for my SATs without understanding what they were. I applied to colleges without strategy and took out loans to pay for college because that's what everyone around me seemed to be doing. Fortunately, I received scholarship money, although there was still a huge balance remaining.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are parents and/or grandparents who pay for college tuition and living expenses, and never talk about what this means. In these situations, the value of money may be murky for the person on the receiving end. They only find out, post-college, how expensive things can be.

Talking about family money values

When working with families, I find that college serves as a great milestone to invite thoughtful and intentional family discussions around money values, even if the college-goer is familiar with the concept of allowances and the merits of saving. This is part of the financial planning process, for the entire family, not just the primary income earners or wealth holders.

With parents and grandparents, we might start the discussion around financing educational aspirations of the next generation earlier. We'll discuss various options for saving for educational expenses, including 529 plans and/or custodial accounts. Many of the families I work with, who have considerable means, front-load these accounts early on, and add to them periodically with automatic savings plans (typically, annually up to the current gift tax exclusion amount). By the time the children/grandchildren are seniors in high school, these account values may have grown enough to cover both tuition and living expenses.

As great as this sounds, this doesn't mean that these families and the next generation recipients are on autopilot, because the conversations and lessons around money values are still a necessary complement to the existing college funding. A lot of my clients who are self-made want to instill in their kids the same drive and money values that they had growing up—they don't want their kids to "have a handout." I have one client who is particularly focused on making sure his daughters are financially literate and driven, so that don't have to rely on anyone to support them later on in life.

In the future, I'd want my child to understand the implications of student loans, or any loans for that matter. I also want to pay for as much of the college tuition bill as possible, because I started my adult life at a financial deficit and know all too well how much this impacts other life decisions.

Regardless of the level of wealth a family may have, financial literacy and family conversations are invaluable assets. They enable the next generation to carry the torch forward, in an informed and empowered way. In that way, you can use college as a good place to start, and then keep going with lifelong family conversations about money.

Next steps to consider



Save & invest for college


Open a flexible, tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan.



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