College students are headed off to school and classes will soon begin. Have your students completed your "Freshman Finance 101" class? Don't let your students go to college to learn how to manage money. Start with a family money discussion now, before they leave.
* Have a plan in place.
To avoid misunderstandings, discuss which college expenses they will cover and which you will help to pay. Once you're in agreement, develop a plan for managing those funds. Monthly transfers from Mom and Dad may work best for an inexperienced money manager. If parents give a large lump sum at the beginning of the semester, students may be tempted to overspend in the first few months.
* Focus on budgeting.
College life is full of opportunities to spend money. By developing a budget, students can maintain control of their money and limit their spending. Start a college budget by listing all sources of income — job earnings, savings and parental support — and then list what you think your student might spend each month. For starters, think about the cost of books and school supplies, meals and snacks not covered by a meal plan, entertainment, personal care items, laundry, telephone and Internet service, car expenses and clothes. Remember, budgets need to be flexible and can be revised after the first couple of months. Compare income to expenses — if they don't balance, consider ways to increase income or decrease spending.
* Credit cards can spell danger.
With credit card companies aggressively targeting college students, credit cards can be a major "freshman finance" pitfall. Having a credit card for emergencies and for building a credit history is not necessarily a bad idea. But for some students, access to credit is an invitation to overspend. If your family decides to get student credit cards, be sure the kids understand how credit and credit ratings work, and how easily debt can get out of control. Advise that they never charge more than the amount they can comfortably afford to pay back each month.
Want to be on the safe side? Have your student use a debit card for everyday expenses and reserve the credit card for true emergencies. Debit cards give all the convenience of a credit card but spending is limited to the amount of money in the bank account.
* Smart spending saves dollars.
Encourage your student to keep spending under control by looking for low-cost activities on campus. College towns are known for having excellent entertainment at lower prices. Also, joining clubs and organizations means your student will have something to do and someone to do it with — and the expenses are far less than a night on the town or a weekend shopping spree. It's also good to learn to comparison-shop and economize. Clipping coupons, buying used books, sharing rides and renting movies rather than going to the theater are just a few ways your student can save money.
Money habits are developed through practice, but bad habits can be costly and hard to break. Help your student get off to a lifetime of wise money management with smart guidance for "Freshman Finance 101."
For more information on financial management issues, see my blog at swktalk.com/livingwell.