5 Rules to College Success

5 Rules to College Success | www.TheHeavyPurse.comAnother school year is winding down and many young adults are getting ready to cross that bridge into the next chapter of their lives: college. It is an exciting and scary time for college-bound kids and their parents. There is a lot of planning that goes into making college a successful experience, especially when it comes to paying for it. Today, I’m going to walk you through 5 steps to help both you and your child prepare for college, which begins years before they even receive their acceptance letter.

1. Determine Where College Savings Fits Within Your Priorities

Many parents want to provide some financial assistance to their kids and help offset the costs of college. At the same time, I also assume you have other goals, such as retirement, buying a home, travel and so on. Be sure you review all of your goals and understand where college savings fits in.

Only you know how college savings compares to your other goals and what sacrifices you are willing or not willing to make. Do what is right for your family and aligns with your values. What is most important is that your choices don’t sacrifice your financial stability now or in the future. There are options available to help cover the costs of college that are not available to help you fund your retirement or assist you if you overextend yourself now.

Also Read:
How To Save for Your Child’s College Education
To Save for Retirement or College: Which is the Better Choice?

Good financial planning can also provide clarity around your priorities and help you stay on track to reach all your savings goals.

2. Talk about College Frequently

College should be a topic you discuss regularly with your children, even when they are young and college seems many, many years away. You want to lay the groundwork now about college, so your kids understand that it is a privilege, not a right. My girls know there is a link between their school performance now and Mom and Dad paying for college later. I will happily invest in their future provided they demonstrate a desire to attend college and do well in school.

While it is true that a college degree or even being a hard worker doesn’t guarantee success, I also know very few people in life who succeeded without trying. Start setting expectations early and talk to your kids frequently to make sure college is the best choice for them and their future.

Also Read:
Important College Considerations and Conversations

3. Create a Parental Financial Aid Package

Most parents spend years saving money to help pay for their child(ren)’s college education and just sign checks when the bills come due. This is a mistake. You are making a significant investment in your children and have every right to set clear parameters around your financial assistance.

You and your spouse should prepare your parental financial aid package privately and be in full agreement when you present it to your child. Do not wait until they are applying for colleges to share it with them either. There should be no surprises as to what you will and will not cover.

I would start breaking it down for them when they enter high school, so they understand the requirements to even be eligible for your financial assistance and what they must do to maintain that support once they are in college. By setting very specific expectations with them, your kids better understand this huge financial gift you are giving them and treat it with the respect it deserves.

Also Read:
How To Create a Parental Financial Aid Package
The College Conversation: 3 Important Components

4. Be Prepared to Make Difficult Decisions

This is a hard one. We want to give our kids lots of latitude and make their own choices. But we also need to remember that they are still kids who don’t have the life experience to always fully understand the ramifications behind their decisions, especially when it comes to student debt. You may need to make some hard and unpopular decisions but do not shy away from making them.

By preparing and sharing your parental financial aid package, your child should already be aware of some baseline expectations. However, many kids still need some additional financial support beyond what you can provide. Most will fearlessly sign on the dotted line and later come to regret some of their decisions around their student loans. Help avoid this all too common scenario by helping them make educated decisions.

Understand the Return On Investment

Again, by creating a parental financial aid package, your kids should know what colleges fit your parameters, i.e. public or private and in-state or out-state colleges, etc. The price tag of a college is probably the last consideration for most kids, so you need to help it become a key consideration by calculating the Return On Investment or ROI.

Most don’t do this and it’s one reason why I believe there is so much student debt today. Remember, receiving financial aid is very different than getting a mortgage. Two students with very different future earning potential can receive the same amount of money from the same college. Do the math because no one else will do it for you. Is the amount of student debt too high against future earning potential? Cost should not be the sole consideration when choosing a college but it must be considered.

Take Only What You Need

In most instances, they may receive money above the cost of tuition and board. This may seem like a good benefit as it gives kids some breathing room and spending money. The problem is that it is not “free” money. Most will spend that money on the extras, from Spring Break to beer tabs to clothes and gadgets to pet iguanas. 5, 10, 15 or 20 years later, when they are still paying off their student loans, most regret using student loan money versus earning money to pay for those things.

Kids will need spending money, but they should avoid using student loan money as much as possible for those types of expenses. You also don’t want them to turn to credit cards either as that is just a different kind of debt. Instead, they should consider part-time jobs while in school and potentially bumping it to full-time during summer. Kids won’t innately know to do this, so you’ll have to help them understand.

Also Read:
Money Tips to Help You Survive and Thrive in College

5. Create a Plan to Tackle Student Debt

Many kids will need additional assistance beyond Mom and Dad to attend college. Don’t beat yourself up over this. Instead, focus on making sure they have a plan to use that money responsibly while in school and are prepared to tackle their debt aggressively after graduation. Remember, most kids happily spend that money while in college. Once they start making monthly payments, along with the new expenses of truly being on their own, does the weight of their debt truly become real because hypothetically living with debt is easy but reality is often much harder.

Sit down with your kids and create a budget for while they are in school and later for after graduation. This will give them a clear snapshot of their expenses (non-discretionary money) and what discretionary money they have available. Talk about their short-term and long-term goals too. They certainly have dreams they want to achieve and by creating a plan, they can make value-based decisions on how to spend their money as they pay down their student debt.

Also Read:
Part 2: Additional Money Skills Kids Need to Learn Before Leaving Home
How To Navigate the Financial World after Graduation

A New Chapter Begins

College is an exciting time. I have many cherished memories from my time in college as I’m sure you do too. I want my girls to have a wonderful experience, which also means making smart choices before, during and after college. Otherwise, those memories may lose a bit of shine when weighed down by debt and regret. This can be avoided by having regular conversations with your kids about college and playing an active role as they make choices to start the next chapter of their lives.


May 18, 2015  •  30 Comments  •  College

Leave a Comment


  1. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    I availed a student loan to assist my college education. That didn't stop there. To make it cheaper or less, I had to be a working student. I was glad that I did all these things throughout college because I finished paying my loan earlier compared with my classmates and kinda proved something for myself. Planning plus determination really paid off.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      Planning and determination really do make a huge difference and it's great you were able to pay your school loans off early. Great job, Jayson!
  2. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    I think following these strategies will set someone up for financial success mostly because of the overarching theme of communication. If you are having these discussions in your family, then you are already helping yourself stay on a good financial path.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      Communication is so critical, Natalie, and it is unfortunately often overlooked. It keeps everyone on the same page and eliminates surprises for both parents and kids, which you want to avoid when it comes to paying for college.
  3. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    All great tips Shannon! Key with so many of these is taking the situation head on in order to make the best decisions possible. College is such a major decision in the life of the child, not to mention the parents, that it behooves us to go in with as much of an informed decision as possible. If you're already working on teaching your children about money then the college questions should just become a part of the natural outflowing of that.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      Thanks, John! College should definitely be a part of our money talks with kids. It is such a major decision and it's important we make a knowledge decision with our kids.
  4. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    Communication of the plan with your child is the key. Having the ongoing open discussion will give them a clear understanding and help everyone make the best decisions. Understanding that if an average salary of a degree of their choice is $50k spending $200k to obtain it may not be the smartest choice.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      Exactly, Brian! Kids are still kids and don't always see the big picture. We, as their parents, do and need to help them see it and understand the ramifications. They won't innately understand that a $200k loan may not make sense on a $50k salary.
  5. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    If the college tuition environment is the same when I have kids I will push them to seriously consider community college the first two years. It seems like such a great way to save money and would probably allow you to work more to save up for the last two years. Then again, my kids may think my advice is dumb so I have to prepare for that situation as well ;) Because student loans have been such a burden for us in our 20s I plan on paying for a large percentage of my kid's college education.
    • Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      I agree with you DC, I'm actually not a fan of going to college at all because of the immediate financial burden you are put under. The world has changed. You can learn almost anything and prove almost anything through the internet. It's much easier to create your own business while working a job to fund your plans and ideas when you're young. I know others may disagree, but I think college is unnecessary these day. Even a hindrance.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      Having kids attend a community college for the first two years is a great way to save money and help confirm that college is right for your kids too. These days it is a track that more and more parents are pushing their kids towards.
  6. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    As always, great tips. I think constant communication with children about what you can and cannot cover is very important. Kids might think that you'll be able to pay for an expensive school and then they find out that you can't afford it. Keeping that line of communication open will avoid any disappointments.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      It is critical to keep those communication lines open because otherwise you do set yourself up for disappointment and unnecessary arguments. If kids understand from the get-go what will and won't be covered, it helps them narrow their search to schools that fit the parameter and avoid disappointment.
  7. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    Great tips Shannon! I wish my parents and I had talked more so we would've have clear expectations on both sides about how much they were able and willing to contribute and where the remaining funds for my college education would come from. Not talking about it lead to some confusion and unclear expectations on both sides at times.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      I'm sorry to hear that communication could have been better between you and your parents and it is a common issue. Thankfully, it is also one that can be easily remedied and I hope more parents are communicating regularly with kids to avoid the confusion you went through.
  8. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    A book I highly recommend to the college bound is Zac Bissonette's Debt Free U. He has a ton of tips in there for saving on college costs and earning money for college as well. Filled with great info!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      Thanks for the recommendation, Laurie! It sounds like a great book; I'll have to check it out. :)
  9. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    These are great tips Shannon, especially about making difficult decisions. As parents, we want our children to have what they want as far as college, but sometimes the best fit for them emotionally is not the best fit for the family financially. It stinks to make that call, but I know very few people who didn't enjoy their college experience. At the end of the day, no matter where you go, you are guaranteed to learn a lot and meet great people along the way.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      It really is hard to make those difficult decisions because we do want to give our kids everything, but sometimes the right decision is the hardest one to make. And it's true, wherever you go, you have the opportunity to learn, make life-long friends and have fun.
  10. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    Great post! My only hope is that this discussion is happening very early on in the college selection process. Ideally, parents need to start having this discussion closer to the very beginning of high school. Parents also need to start educating themselves about the financial aid process well before their child hits senior year.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      Thanks, Kim! Absolutely, these talks must being years before your child is applying to college. You don't want there to be any surprised about what will covered and won't and how much assistance you are able to provide when it is time to start applying to colleges. And I agree, parents needs to make sure they understand the financial aid process and encourage their kids to apply for every scholarship or grant available to them too.
  11. Monday, May 18th, 2015
    Another great post. College is something Jim and I talk about all the time. We'd love it if our daughter got into some prestigious school someday, but the reality is that we both went to state schools and have done just fine. I've seen lots of parents get caught up in the idea of having their kids get into their top choice school and then parent and child go into huge debt to pay for it. I think cost needs to figure right into the whole planning and application process.
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      I think every parents secretly hopes their child is accepted into a prestigious school (and ideally with a full scholarship too!) and for many, it's not worth the debt either. Calculating ROI is critical and a step many skip, which can lead to some big regret later.
  12. Tuesday, May 19th, 2015
    We have been saving for college since our kids were babies. I am definitely not sending them a blank check though. We can probably pay for it all if they choose a state school. We cannot help that much if they choose a private school our something crazy expensive!
    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      I definitely don't plan to write a blank check either. Sadly, too many parents make that mistake!
  13. Wednesday, May 20th, 2015
    Thanks for sharing this Shannon. This post comes at a great time for me.

    We are in the planning stages with our daughter who is leaving for college in August. Our discussions about college and money are almost daily. From checking our checklist to asking her about her bank account balance.

    She likes to spend so I always ask her how much she has and what's she's bought. It's making her think twice about what she buys because she knows she has to account for it and she doesn't want to hear my speech :).

    It is a very exciting time for us but we are being very cautious about everything. I want her to enjoy college and not worry about debt.

    Hope you're having a great week.

    • Shannon Ryan
      Thursday, May 21st, 2015
      It sounds like you're doing everything right, Corina. Those daily talks are important and it's obviously influencing your daughter and making her think about how she spends her money, which is fabulous!
  14. MarkD
    Tuesday, May 26th, 2015
    In line with #5, controlling debt starts with estimating what it will be when your student is all done. This calculator makes that pretty easy And as a bonus it also displays expected income from almost every profession.
  15. Sunday, August 9th, 2015
    My dad always taught me to spend only on things you'll be dead without, and every time I ask some extra money to spend, he surely always ask "will you be dead without it?" And only give me money if I can give a good answer to it, I used to think my dad was a horror back then, but now I learned my lesson, and I think somehow it saves me a lot of trouble after my graduation.
  • Meet Shannon

    "As a Certified Financial Planner, it is my passion to help individuals and families build a healthy relationship with money. I look forward to helping you raise financially confident kids.” - Shannon Ryan