Singletary: Freshman financial orientation

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Thousands of high school graduates will be starting their first semester of college shortly, and no doubt they’ve got a long list of things they want and need.

But don’t just send them off with dorm-room essentials or a backpack of books without the financial essentials they’ll also need. I’ve put together five things to pass along:

• Become familiar with budgeting.The parties, the clothes and the temptation to keep up with the more well-heeled students will be all around them. Before your freshman heads off to campus, have the budget talk. Show them how it is done. Practice it with their college shopping. That’s what my husband and I did with our daughter Olivia, now a sophomore at the University of Maryland. Last year at this time, we made her come up with a budget based on what she wanted and needed for her dorm room.

I wouldn’t take her shopping until I saw the budget and her shopping list. She huffed, but in the end she did it. And you know what? She began to make great choices about things she could do without based on what she had budgeted.

If you don’t budget yourself, it’s hard to make the case that your kids should. If you’ve been challenged in this department, find someone who can help, recommends the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The organization has member agencies across the country that can help with the budget talk. Some people think the nonprofit agencies are only there to help folks get out of debt. But the counselors can also help on an assortment of finance-related issues. Find an agency by calling 1-800-388-2227 or online at www.DebtAdvice.org.

• Become familiar with banking. If your child has never really managed a bank account, he or she needs a crash course. And when I say manage, I mean take them beyond just knowing how to withdraw money with their ATM card. It’s time they bank the way you do, which is to say they need to understand how to balance their checkbook even if they do everything electronically.

You need to have a discussion about the high price of overdraft fees. You might consider having your student opt out of having overdraft protection. Better to have an attempted purchase with a debit card declined than rack up huge overdraft fees.

A few years before our daughter went off to college, we had her open a bank account when she started working after school. She controls it without any oversight. She signed up with Mint.com to help manage her money.

• Become familiar with buying discount books. We gave all the responsibility of buying books to our daughter. She in turn became good at finding discount textbooks. She used a variety of websites to help manage the costs. She bought used. She rented books. She also waited until the first day of class to make sure what books were absolutely necessary, although this strategy could mean a delay in having material needed for class because a book has to be shipped.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups has been lobbying for years for textbooks to be more affordable. For tips on saving on textbooks, go to www.studentpirgs.org/resources/textbook-tips.

• Become intimately involved with what you owe. From day one, the student ought to know exactly what it costs to attend college — down to every single fee. This is particularly important if loans are being taken out.

Finally, this is for you, parent, grandparent or guardian:

• Let it go. In the song “Let it Go” from Disney’s movie “Frozen,” Idina Menzel sings, “It’s time to see what I can do.”

If you’ve done your job and taught your child what he or she needs to know about handling money, let them take care of things. Coming from a control freak like me, this isn’t easy to say.

Watch, give guidance when you see them faltering. But let go. We did and we are so proud of our daughter.


Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas. Reach her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071; or singletarym@washpost.com.