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The College Chat: When & How to Start Planning for College With Your Kids

College • August 5, 2020 • Jenn Ruiz


What you’ll learn

  • Tips to start planting the seed about going to college
  • How to make conversations about planning for college fun and engaging
  • How to teach your kids to budget


As a mother of seven and nine-year-old girls, it’s hard to imagine already having a conversation with them about going to college.

That said, I’ve seen firsthand what can happen if chats about this major financial decision are put off. My husband and I have been down this road before with my 25-year-old stepdaughter, who graduated from Temple University just a few years ago. In that case, we learned that without continuous conversations about planning for college starting early on, families can end up paying for it, literally and figuratively, in the future.

You might be wondering how to start? When is the right time to plant the seed about going to college? And how can you get your kids to listen or -be interested or invested in- a discussion about planning for their higher education when they’d much rather be on their devices playing games and chatting with their friends?

Follow these tips that have helped our family…

Get the ‘Convo' Going Early

While there’s no hard and fast rules about how to get started, experts suggest planting the seed in children as early as kindergarten, but recommend ramping up the conversations about college in middle school.

Suggestions for starting the conversation:

School-aged:

  • Sprinkle in fun (and appropriate) tales about the “college days” during story time!
  • Be creative and use “when I was younger” stories to share positive experiences about going to college.
  • Make it a game! Ask your kids what they think college is or to name a college using letters from the alphabet.

Middle schoolers:

  • Find opportunities to share stories about people who really influenced you as a young student and what they said about college.
  • Encourage family and friends to also share their college experiences.

High schoolers:

  • Collect college brochures! This is an easy way for students to get a sense of different colleges, programs, and extracurricular activities that are offered.
  • Match interests with college programs to make the most of your child’s interest and hobbies.
  • Research and apply for scholarships that match your child’s interests.

Get Some Team Spirit!

In addition to planting the seed about attending college, building excitement leading up to it is just as important. One of the most effective ways to get your kids pumped about the idea of going to and planning for college is to introduce them to some school spirit!

As a Temple Alum, who’s put her kids in a Temple t-shirt (or two) and has dressed them as Temple Owl mascots and cheerleaders in the past, I can proudly say I started introducing my girls to my alma mater at a very early age. In our case, it was easy. Not only did our girls love visiting their older sister at college, but also, we always tried to take a trip to campus during a fun sporting event. This was a great way to help introduce the idea of college to them.

Other creative strategies to get them into the college spirit:

  • Take your kids on a campus tour (virtually or in person, once it’s safe to do so).
  • Bring them to a college reunion (if it’s family-friendly, of course).
  • Share old photos/experiences of college events and activities.
  • Teach your kids to sing your college alma mater song!

Keep the Money Talk Simple and Fun!

While the message of going to college is an important one to set early on, talking to them about how to plan for college as a family is equally as important. In fact, according to a recent Sallie Mae and Ipsos report, “Higher Ambitions: How America Plans for Post-secondary Education”, slightly more than half of families (54%) have a plan for how to pay for higher education. Different tactics can prove to be effective throughout various phases of your child’s life, but here are a few that introduce your kids to money basics, which can help them understand college costs later.

Make the Work-Money Connection

One thing as a parent that I’ve always tried to do is to teach my children that money does not grow on trees, it’s earned through hard work. That said, I’ve found that one of the simplest ways to teach this concept is through household chores. Set up a chore chart and you can either pay for each completed task or pay your children’s allowance once they have finished their assigned chores.

Another helpful maneuver to make the connection between work and money is taking something they really want, such as a new video game or toy, and telling them how much it will cost. Once they see the amount of chores they will need to perform in order to save and get what they want, it will start to sink in.

This concept also works when including children on decisions for planning and making big ticket purchases, like a vacation. Break down costs for everything, including travel, accommodations, tickets for activities, food, and even souvenirs! Once your family comes up with a total that needs to be saved for the trip, you can discuss where, as a family, to cut back on expenses. This is an opportunity to show your children that even fun things come with a cost and you need to save for them.

Another great tool to help teach your kids about saving is a goal-based savings account with competitive interest rates like SmartyPig. This free, online piggy bank can help kids and parents save for long- and short-term goals. SmartyPig Accounts are offered through Sallie Mae Bank, member FDIC.

Develop Budgeting Skills Early

Explaining how a budget works at any age is a great way to help kids learn how to save, spend, give, and share.

School-age:

  • Use three jars or piggy banks to separate into the save, spend, and share categories.
  • Explain the meaning for the jars so they understand the difference.
  • Help them allot the chore money to the jars so they can understand how to properly budget.

Middle schoolers:

  • Set up real-world, real money assignments.
  • Have child plan a family meal by taking them on a virtual grocery shopping trip. They will learn how much it costs to put dinner on the table.
  • Challenge a child to create a budget worksheet, including income and expenses. This will not only serve as a great math lesson, but also will help them learn to calculate how to spend, save and give.

High schoolers:

  • Show them how to set up a budget to pay for their cell phone bill, buy gas when they borrow the car, donate to their favorite charity, or save for their higher education.

When it comes down to it, having conversations about college and planning for it is something all families will face at some point in time. Research from Sallie Mae and Ipsos finds most families are having conversations about planning for post-secondary education now and (90%) have had the ‘college talk’. And while most of the students interviewed for the report were in high school, it’s interesting to point out that two-thirds of families have discussed some aspect of paying for college and half of families who did said it was easy to have those conversations.

Whether you find talking about college easy or not, remember that honesty is always the best policy. Let your kids know where your college plan stands, and be sure to use these tips and other tools like Sallie Mae’s free College Planning Calculator to help get the dialogue rolling.


Jennifer is a Sallie Mae employee and a graduate of Temple University. When she’s not playing the role of dance mom to her two young daughters, you can find Jenn and her husband strolling through the streets of Philly looking for the best local eats. She is also a huge Ricky Martin fan!


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