If you’re like most normal people, talking about money with your kids ranks up there on the awkward scale with talking with them about sex. That doesn’t mean you get to skip it, though. When it comes to college, the long-term repercussions of a bad financial decision are far too big to overlook. So, how do you have a productive conversation around college costs?

First, it’s important to be age-appropriate. Kindergarteners don’t need to know about student loan debt, but high school students who are choosing colleges do. Here are some age-appropriate conversations to have at every age:

  • Newborns and other very littles: This is a great time for parents to get on the same page about college. Do you view it as essential? One of several pathways you’d like to make available? Do you have strong feelings about your student having skin in the game? Do you have strong feelings about your alma mater? (If so, now is a great time to do its net price calculator and see how strong those feelings remain.)
  • Elementary school: I call these conversations “college-adjacent.” Mention college in ways that make it interesting to your child. This might be telling them about a friend you met in college or some interesting factoid (“I never understood thunderstorms until I took a meteorology class in college where I learned …”) Take them to an event at a college– sports, theater, arts, and just about anything else is always available, as are many activities specifically targeted at younger kids– or just walk around the campus.
  • Middle school: This is a great time to start talking about college and money. Tell your kids that you’re saving for college because it’s important to you that they have the opportunity to go. This helps to position you as their partner in their journey towards college. Have them look up cost of attendance at different colleges and talk about things you could buy with the difference in cost between a public and private school, or getting a scholarship vs not getting it. A great prompt for this might be a friend’s older sibling who is currently looking at colleges. This is also a great time for parents to check in on their savings rate and what that is likely to turn into at high school graduation, and adjust as needed– whether that means saving more or revising your expectations of what college pathways will work for your family.
  • High school: In high school you need to be talking with your student about specifics. What is a realistic budget for their college? What do you expect them to contribute? How do you feel about student loans? Approaching these conversations from the perspective of goals rather than constraints helps keep you in a partnership role. For example, a goals-based conversation about how much you can spend for college sounds like, “It’s really important to us that you are able to finish college without/with a minimum of student loans. We’ve saved enough that you can do that at our in-state schools. There are probably other options you can find that would fit in this budget, and scholarships that might extend it, and we’ll support you in finding those other options if you want.” That’s a very different message than, “You can only go in-state because that’s all we can afford.”

One of the best ways to make money conversations less awkward at any age is to have more of them. A simple money conversation is talking about why you spend money, especially in the context of every dollar can only be spent once. For example, when you take a family vacation you could mention that spending time together is important to you so you’re willing to sacrifice other things– dinners out, nicer cars, insert your sacrifice here– in order to be able to do that. Or that you set aside a portion of every paycheck to save for the future, whether for college, retirement, or other priorities. When something goes wrong– your car breaks down or you need to replace a computer– mention that you have a savings account that helps cover costs like that. There are loads of ways to bring up money in a non-threatening way, and you don’t have to be a financial expert to do so!

P.S. Want more strategies for parenting your kid through the college process and building a financial plan for college? Pick up a copy of my book, How to Pay for College!