How We Can Empower Our College-Bound Teens To Build Financial Independence

I’ve “soft launched” three kids into college in four short years, which means they’re entering a phase in life with a lot more freedom and choices. Thankfully, they still have a giant safety net — us, their parents.

We’ve taught them about financial literacy, impressed upon them the importance of good credit, preached fiscal responsibility, and talked ad nauseam about college finances. The only thing left is to let them fly. Let them flounder. Let them dust off their wings and take flight again.

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Let them prepare

Around 89% of college parents believe in the importance of a college degree, but 78% agree that paying for college is stressful.[1] Every family must decide how to cover college costs; mine is no exception. It’s a deeply personal decision based on several factors: family values, financial security, and individual belief systems.

Most parents (93%) help their students pay for college.[1] My kids knew how much they had in their 529 plans and understood the rest was theirs to cover. They all worked in high school to save a substantial amount for a head start to funding their education. We also discussed the importance of choosing a school with an excellent return on investment (ROI), with the aim of keeping student loan costs below their first-year salary after graduating. While we are firm believers that college is worth the cost, it was my deepest hope that they would prioritize graduating debt-free.

Let them learn

In this learning process, we evaluated in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, private vs. public education, and potential career earnings vs. the total cost of a degree. These conversations shaped how they looked at college and helped them understand that it was an investment in their future, not just a pretty campus and four years of carefree, semi-adult life.

They were keenly aware that their “hard launch” into the world of full-time work and financial independence, with no parental guard rails, was right around the charming college corner.

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Let them live

Look, I get it — we’re parents. We want our kids’ lives to be better and easier than they were for us. In fact, 30% of families have a student who attended college outside of their budget and recouped those extra costs with a combination of income and savings (58%) and student loans (39%).[1]

I’ve learned that no amount of words or money can prepare our kids for the reality of the glorious learning curve of their college years.

In other words, no matter what educational costs we cover, they have to experience the reality of financial responsibility. It’s essential for their growth and development as their mushy frontal lobes mature and they carve out their long-term financial habits.

Let them navigate

Our college kids will have to make financial decisions that fall into two distinct categories: want vs. need. Tuition, rent, and food are all needs, while discretionary and social spending are wants. Soon, they’ll learn the art of buying food on sale, choosing not to eat out every day, finding affordable student housing, and deciding which social events are essential versus ones that must take a backseat to necessities.

Delayed gratification will become their middle name. They’ll quickly decide if they need a part-time job to subsidize their spending habits, and they’ll understand what it feels like to see their bank accounts dwindle while the bills stay the same (or even rise) — our only job is to let them flounder.

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Let them fall and get back up

Let them figure it out, make mistakes, and feel the sting of growing financial responsibility. If we rescue them, we’re depriving them of what the “soft launch” is designed to do — teach them grit, resilience, fortitude, and financial decision-making skills.

Trust me, they want to fly, and we should let them, but that freedom comes with a price they need to understand. We can’t be their wings, only their safe place to land, regroup, and fly away again — only this time, wiser and stronger.

[1] College Ave Survey, 2024.


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