When your child is college-bound, financial stress is a very real thing. In fact, the financial part of sending a child off to college can be overwhelming. 

I spent 12 years working in college admission at my alma mater. Every so often, parents would break down in tears in my office. They wanted so badly to be able to pay for college. I’ve never forgotten these conversations and I still think about those families.

Stressed about paying for college? Here are some ways to refocus and reframe.
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Money is one of the most commonly mentioned personal stressors, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Stress in America survey. In fact, 60 percent of people from the survey cite money as a major stressor.

Chances are, you probably feel some financial stress — I mean, 60 percent is a heckuva lot of people!

It’s easy to say, “Think about something else! Go for a bike ride!” You know, common ways to de-stress your life. But financial stress is so different — it doesn’t go away when you spend 30 minutes with a yoga mat. It may take time and involve some serious planning.

So instead of telling you to grow your own potatoes or start extreme couponing, here are six ideas for how to attack financial stress. Warning: They’re not all quick fixes, but they will help you feel better about financial stress later on. Promise.

1. Recognize how you deal with money-related stress.

The first thing you can do to alleviate financial stress is to recognize how you handle money. Have you ever stopped to evaluate how money in general makes you feel?

Maybe you: 

  • Never talk about it. You just let the stress build up like a hot air balloon.
  • Talk about money (or lack thereof) with everyone — your spouse, your kids, your friends — everyone!
  • Fall somewhere in between these two approaches.

Suze Orman, award-winning author and financial personality, believes that how your parents handled money paved the way for you to formulate your own attitudes about money. 

Did money cause stress in your family? Did you parents spend more than they earned? Was money a source of pain? Were your parents controlled by money instead of the other way around? 

Orman grew up in a poor family. She often tells the story about how her father’s small takeout restaurant burst into flames. He still ran in to get the cash register, burning his hands in the process. It showed a young Orman that money is more important than life itself!

Money is so closely tied to emotions.

You may want to think of it this way instead: You define your money. You tell it what to do! You’re in control of it! You can make as much as you want. (You just might not be able to do that completely through a traditional nine-to-five job. Check out my piece on how parents can make money!)

2. Write down your goals.

When I worked for the college, I gave a presentation to my team during our annual summer retreat about writing goals. When I announced my topic choice, I’m pretty sure everyone groaned. “Why do you feel that way about goal setting?” I asked.

Our campus visit coordinator replied, “It’s boooring.” 

I laughed and said, “What’s boring about getting exactly what you want? Let’s say you write, ‘I’d like a new car in a year and I’ll do A, B and C in order to save for it.’ What’s boring about that? You get a new car!’”

I’m sort of a geek when it comes to goal-setting. Let me tell you, writing down your goals works. For example, my husband and I resolved to save a certain amount of money by this spring because he wants a new shop. It’s currently in the works — all because of a little Google doc (and a bit of willpower, too).

The premise is simple: Write it down, make it happen!

You can write down your goals associated with paying for college. Let’s say you write, “Get a side gig by July 2020 to earn extra money for Junior’s college fund.” And yes, you can do this even if your child is set to go to college this fall.

Try it! Write it down! I promise, it works. There’s something empowering about writing down your goals and posting them where you can see them. And man, oh, man, is it cool when you turn that goal into reality. 

3. Meet with a financial advisor.

You may already have a financial advisor, but if you haven’t met with him or her recently, it may be time for a financial checkup. 

Never worked with a financial advisor before? One of the best ways to find a great financial advisor is to ask around. Ask your family and friends who they use in town. It’s important to have a financial advisor who has a good reputation in your community. 

Next, meet with a few financial advisors and ask good questions! Here are some you can ask: 

  1. Are you a fiduciary? A fiduciary will put your financial interests before their own. If a financial advisor is not a fiduciary, don’t choose that advisor.
  2. How do you get paid? Focus on fee-only advisors. Fee-only advisors might charge a percentage of the assets they manage for you — a flat fee for services or an hourly fee. If costs are a concern, use a robo-advisor like Betterment, Wealthfront or SigFig.
  3. What are your qualifications? You can check the legitimacy of a financial advisor by visiting FINRA’s BrokerCheck. BrokerCheck is a free tool that can help you research advisors and firms.
  4. How will you help me map out a plan to pay for college? Whether you’ve saved nothing at all or have some money in the bank, an advisor should be able to give you an idea of how he will help you approach paying for college. 

Make sure the advisor meshes well with your personality. Your best friend may have recommended a particular advisor, but that person may not click with you. It’s okay. Move on to someone else. In all cases, your first consultation is free.

Believe it or not, talking with financial advisors is often very soothing. The reason? They help you come up with a concrete plan to help you tackle your goals. 

4. Use financial aid to your advantage.

Yes, this could be the most obvious de-stressor of all — getting financial aid!

Class of 2020 parents, you can combat financial stress during this corona-crazy time. All it takes is a simple phone call. Ask the financial aid office at your child’s chosen college if there’s any extra money laying around. Inquire about extra scholarships. Ask about work-study. Tell the financial aid office about a recent job loss. Talk to someone in financial aid about any financial situation you’re going through. Colleges want your child to go to their college and can help you alleviate financial stress.

If you’re the parent of a sophomore or junior, financial aid can go a long way to help you and your child afford college. It’s a great idea to start planning now. Check out my short piece about financial aid (What is Financial Aid? Plus, 6 Steps to Get It) so you start understanding the basics. 

5. Reduce other stressors.

What’s a great way to reduce stress? You can make a long list of temporary stress relievers, I’m sure: Go for a walk. Talk to a friend on the phone. Color rocks with sidewalk chalk (that’s what I’m watching my kids do right now). 

Do you know what seems to exacerbate one stress? Another stressor! 

For example, let’s say you’re already stressed about paying for college. It doesn’t help if you’re stressed about, say, the 2020 presidential election. (I’m not pulling this out of thin air — the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Stress in America survey actually cited the presidential election as a major source of stress. It would be interesting to know how coronavirus would rank now.)

As much as you can, try to reduce other stressors in your life. Have a talk with your neighbor about his dog’s incessant barking. Talk to your mailman about firmly shutting your mailbox door so your mail isn’t soggy every time you grab the mail. (These seem little, but man, are they irritating!)

Eliminate the little stressors so you can tackle your financial stress before college head-on and talk to your spouse or others about what’s really stressing you out.

6. Talk to someone.

Chances are, you know someone else who’s sending a child off to college this fall. Or better yet, you know someone who already has three kids in college right now. This is your tribe! Your friends and community can be a great sounding board for your fears. 

If your regular tribe doesn’t include parents of college-bound kids, it may be time to find a new tribe or add to your existing tribe. 

You might need to go beyond your tribe and your spouse or partner and seek counseling if you’re really stressed out. If you find daily life to be a struggle or feel that your emotions are overwhelming, seek help. Just remember, money fears are real. It’s okay to reach out to a professional. 

Reduce Stress Now

First and foremost, remember to celebrate one major thing: That your child’s going to college. Focus on what’s important. He or she is going to get the college education that he or she (and frankly, you!) have always dreamed about. 

Remember that even though you may want to help your child pay for college, it’s still possible for your child to get loans to fund college completely. 

Above all else, consider your attitudes toward money. Again, you may want to reframe how you think about money. If you think of money as unlimited — flowing in abundance! — it might just happen and help you and your kiddo pay for college. 

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