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The Other Talk: How to Talk to Your Middle Schooler About College and Money

Jean Chatzky  |  August 19, 2019

No, you don’t want to hit a middle school child over the head with frightening facts about the cost of college. Then again, you do want to prepare them for the expenses headed their way.
This post is sponsored and part of a paid campaign with Citizens Bank, N.A. With the exception of direct quotes, the below advice and opinions are mine. 


Today’s middle schoolers may be more concerned about whether they were invited to a friend’s party next weekend than where they’re going to earn a degree one day.  (It’s only natural, you were, too.). But they’re not too young to make sure they know that college is in their future—and that planning for college means thinking about how you’re going to pay for it. 

“Middle school is not too early to start talking about these things,” says child psychologist Tanya Gesek. “Generally speaking, parents wait way too long to start having financial conversations with their kids.”   Still, there’s talking and then there’s talking.  At the middle school level, you don’t need serious, sit-down meetings. Instead, look for ways to incorporate personal finance concepts and the idea of college savings into more everyday discussions. You want to get your kids thinking about these things, but you don’t need them obsessing over them. Here’s how to get the conversations started:

6th grade: Sure, you can have those new Steph Curry sneakers. Have you saved up enough of your allowance to buy them?

The best way for kids to learn about saving is by doing it themselves. Providing your child with an allowance is an opportunity for them to get practice doing just that. There are other lessons that come with an allowance, too: Your child will see how long it can take to accumulate enough money for a big purchase, and the trade-offs they may need to make in order to reach their goals. 

The earlier your kids start to understand how to manage their money, the better they’ll be able to/ independently doing so on their own in the future.  If saving their allowance is going to take too long, encourage them to look for ways to earn additional money. For middle schoolers who may not be eligible for an actual paycheck, this might include doing some extra work around the house or for neighbors.  Then, they’ll learn not only how to save, but also the value of the money that they’ve earned themselves. And while you’re passing along all this saving wisdom to them – make sure they understand that you’re doing some saving of your own, for their future education.  Or how, when grandparents make a gift to the 529 instead of putting one under the tree, their generosity is unsurpassed.

7th grade: Yes, you can be a doctor (or an astronaut or a teacher)! To do it, you’ll need to go to college…

By middle school age, many children have begun to consider career options beyond professional baseball player or pop star. While there’s no need to lock them into a career choice now, it is an opportunity to let them know that most careers in today’s economy require more than a high school diploma. Workers who have a bachelor’s degree earn 84% more than high school graduates, taking home nearly $3 million more over the course of a lifetime, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce.

“Explain to them that your number one job is to go to school and get good grades,” says Jodi Okun, a college financial advisor in Los Angeles. “Getting good grades and doing your homework will give you more options when it comes to applying to college.”

Middle school grades won’t appear on a college application, of course, but doing well in middle school can provide the academic foundation for success in high school and beyond. This is also your opportunity to continue discussing how college can be very expensive, but it’s also an investment in your future and one that is important to your family to make. 

You might even consider making a visit to a nearby college. You don’t need to schedule a formal tour, but just seeing themselves on a college campus may get your middle schooler thinking more about the steps required to get there later. One recent study found that 8th graders who had visited a college campus were more likely to enroll in advanced math and science/social science classes in ninth grade.

8th grade: Wow, Sophia must have really enjoyed going to Europe with her family over break! We did a road trip because we’re putting money into your 529 account…

If you’re already setting aside money for your child’s college education, let them know about it. Making kids aware that you’re already making tradeoffs in order to save money to help them with their college bills may help them understand what a big undertaking it is to pay for college, and that you’re doing what you can to help offset those costs. This is also an opportunity for a personal finance lesson on investing, and how the money you set aside now can grow and compound over time.

Or… We did a road trip because I’m still paying off my student loans…

Similarly, if you’re still paying your own student loans, letting your kids know how borrowing for college has impacted your budget—even decades later is an important lesson. There are nearly 16 million Americans over age 40 who are currently paying student loans, so your experience isn’t uncommon. 

 “Telling your own life story to your children is really valuable for kids, and help them put everything into context,” says Eugene Beresin, a psychologist and executive director of the Clay Center for Young and Healthy Minds.  While middle school kids may not be ready for detailed conversations about college financing, getting them thinking about going to college—and how they’re going to pay for it—is an important step in making sure that they make responsible decisions when the time comes.

With Beth Braverman
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