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How to Start the College Money Talk

Nancy Paul August 12, 2021

For some clients, college tuition is the second biggest expense of their lives. And whenever an individual or family is making large expenditures like this, they want to feel comfortable and empowered with their decision.

This presents a big opportunity within college planning for financial advisors to not only deepen client relationships but also enhance financial wellness for their clients. Advisors are in a prime position to ease financial stress, steer the college money talk, introduce cost-saving strategies with a plan, and connect with the next-generation of clients.

As a mother of three, I was personally dedicated to investing many hours (upwards of 100) strategizing ways to pay for and communicate with children about college. In addition, for over a decade I have been professionally involved—authoring college planning education and working with families and financial professionals to find more money for college with merit scholarships. I am now part of The Institute for Financial Literacy in College Planning. This new entity is an education center and think tank dedicated to bringing the cost of college into the forefront of college planning, so that all families have options for how and how much they pay for college, and young people can launch happy, purposeful, and financially healthy lives.

How a Family Pays for College Is Just as Important as How Much They Pay

We all likely have an understanding that college costs are rising—but do we really understand how fast and what the future cost may be? Forbes cited in a 2020 article that college tuition is rising at twice the inflation rate.1 In today’s society, college debt has been normalized. In 2021 student loan debt is now about $1.7 trillion in the U.S.2

While there are programs that will help need-based families meet the rising costs, there is a group that are beyond financial need—but not quite willing to write checks for $100K each year, for four years, or more, per child. They know the impact a college degree can have on their child’s future; however, the expected value and actual sticker price of college quite often need alignment with that particular family’s financial priorities and inherent values.

For the cost reasons alone, clients are motivated for the college money talk. Many are also concerned about their kids’ relationships with money. Clients don’t want to spend more than they have to. You don’t want your clients talking to their friends and realizing they missed out on an opportunity—whether it was starting to save early or applying for merit scholarships that are available. Your clients need options and direction.

The College Money Talk™

If you haven’t started talking with your clients about the cost of college yet, start! Integrating college funding with financial planning can serve your clients more deeply for better life planning.

The College Money Talk™ is a series of strategic conversations with the entire family, starting with the parents/partners. Steered by a financial professional, this conversation is intended to uncover the family’s core beliefs and attitudes about paying for college. For example, what are the priorities—are top schools important, is a specific location or career path driving the decision? Do they understand the cost realities associated with those decisions? What is their position on children having “skin in the game”?

These questions and topics will help you begin to explore not only how clients want to fund college, but also their expectations on the strategies and commitment to do so. For instance, what’s the student’s responsibility? Are some schools worth more than others? Is the student expected to pursue merit scholarships, study for the SAT/ACT to qualify for more merit aid, or get a job to contribute?

Once parents and partners are aligned then they need to involve the kids in the discussion. It’s a family conversation about money since college is part of the whole financial plan.

Steps for Financial Advisors to Steer the College Money Talk with Clients

  1. Start early. A well-planned discussion with parents about how much the family can afford to pay for college is the first step. Second, follow with a family conversation when the students are in middle school.
  2. Set the stage. Obtain a baseline for costs and keep it top of mind that there are options to paying for college, beyond 529 accounts, life insurance policies, or dipping into a retirement account. Educate yourself on the various cost-saving solutions for families who don’t qualify for financial aid.
  3. Ask questions. Give both parents/partners, as well as the student, the chance to voice their thoughts and expectations on the matter.
  4. Listen. You will gain enormous insight on how you can best serve them to meet their expectations.
  5. Shed light. Not everything is determined by a student’s academic ranking. Preparing a student for college is empowering them for life. Find the best choice that is uniquely right for that student.
  6. Create a game plan. With the target in mind, build the strategy.
  7. Rinse and repeat. Talk early and follow-up often. Create a system for implementing The College Money Talk into quarterly or annual financial planning meetings for best results. When you ease your clients’ stress about what they care about most—their kids’ futures—they tell their friends!

The College Funding Opportunity

College funding solutions are not created equal. Some give students financial literacy, skin in the game, life skills, and confidence so they can successfully launch. Merit scholarships, money for college based on achievement, provide opportunities for students to leverage their uniqueness to lower college costs. This includes community service, leadership, ethnicity, passions, talents, and more.

Be Your Clients’ Hero

I cannot stress enough to financial professionals and families alike, The College Money Talk cannot wait. Skipping or delaying the talk has consequences—including financial stress and strained relationships between clients and their children.

With college planning, financial advisors have an opportunity to deepen client relationships, enhance financial wellness, differentiate yourselves, and increase social impact. Check out the webinar below for more tips on why The College Money Talk is so vital to your clients’ financial lives and your opportunity to become your clients’ hero.

*Please note, CE credit is not available for on-demand webinars.


Sherman, Erik. “College Tuition Is Rising at Twice the Inflation Rate—While Students Learn at Home,” Forbes, August, 2020.

2 Friedman, Zack. “Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2021: A Record $1.7 Trillion,” Forbes, February, 2021.

DISCLAIMER: The eMoney Advisor Blog is meant as an educational and informative resource for financial professionals and individuals alike. It is not meant to be, and should not be taken as financial, legal, tax or other professional advice. Those seeking professional advice may do so by consulting with a professional advisor. eMoney Advisor will not be liable for any actions you may take based on the content of this blog.

The views and opinions expressed by this blog post guest are solely those of the guest and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of eMoney Advisor, LLC. eMoney Advisor is not responsible for the content, views or opinions presented by our guest, nor may eMoney Advisor be held liable for any actions taken by you based on the content, views or opinions of the guest.

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About the Author

The mother of three daughters, Nancy spent 100 hours researching merit scholarships for her eldest daughter. Together, the girls won $600,000 in merit scholarships—money for college based on achievement. Every dollar gave the family more options and empowered the girls with benefits that money cannot buy. Since 2011, Nancy has advised families who earn too much for financial aid how to pay less for college and empower their students in the process. One-third of her private clients are financial advisors seeking solutions to skyrocketing college costs for their own families. Nancy is the best-selling author of The Little Book about Scholarships; a former UCLA Scholarship judge; creator of the “Pay Less for College Boot Camp,” “The More Money for College Conference” at UCLA, “The College Treasure Chest: Where to Find Money for College Faster,” and the W.I.S.H.E.S. System™. She is also a speaker, consultant, and advocate for all families’ rights to know how to pay less for college, attain financial wellness, and maximize their students’ potential.

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