The last time I went to the dentist, my dentist told me all about how the college search was going with her senior. (Naturally, I wanted to ask her a billion questions as her dental instruments clinked against my teeth.)
Anyway, she told me that her senior, Will, was happily considering a local liberal arts college and a state school an hour down the road. She said to him, “Do you have a reach school? Somewhere you really, really want to go? Far away?”
He thought for a second. “Nah,” he replied. He went back to playing his video game.
She was kind of disappointed. Later, she asked him why he didn’t want to “see what else is out there.” Will told her he thought it might be weird to do something other than what everyone else seemed to be doing.
Another mom I know has a student who’s completely focused on saving money, not taking out any loans and making it easy on his parents. He’s looking at state schools and private colleges to humor his parents, but his mom said, “He’s seriously looking at community colleges and I’m actually disappointed. Imagine that! Disappointed that he wants to go to college and save us money. But… I just don’t think community college is the best fit for him.”
You want your kids to make their own college decisions, yet you want college to be the right choice the first time around. So what do you do when you feel slightly disappointed (or a lot disappointed) by your student’s shortlist?
Never fear — here are some helpful pointers!
1. Know that it’s Okay to Feel This Way
When you‘re unhappy with college choice or your child’s college search isn’t going the way you envisioned, you might feel sad, confused, guilty and also harbor a range of other emotions. First of all, know that your feelings are normal.
It might bring up reminders of other times in your life you were slightly disappointed. Remember when your daughter decided to give up piano lessons? Or your son decided to choose soccer over baseball?
It’s natural — you’ve invested some major time and energy (and money!) into piano lessons or soccer. Let’s take piano lessons, for example. You invested your time by hovering over your daughter as she practiced and drove her to piano lessons every Thursday. You invested your assumptions (“Wow, she played that song really well!”), hopes and dreams (“Maybe she’ll get into Juilliard someday!”).
The more invested you feel, the more you expect an incredible outcome. Same with college. You feel mounting expectations for your child with every A+ math test and every note from an English teacher that says, “You’re a Shakespeare whiz!”
But here’s an interesting question: Is your child supposed to fit your expectations or are your expectations supposed to fit your child? You don’t want to drive a wedge between the two of you.
2. Make Sure Your Student is Ready for the Next Step
E. St. John said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut-wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented — or disoriented — than the choice of a major.”
I’d like to add “choice of college” to that list, too. This is particularly true because you might have to ask yourself if what your child’s ready for. Some kids have a lot of growing up to do before they choose a college.
I recruited Jesse, a bright (really bright!) student. He had the worst time getting through his first year of college because, suddenly, there was this gigantic responsibility on his shoulders — how well he did in school depended completely on him. He faced enormous distractions because his friends (seriously) never went to sleep — they just hung out all the time. To make matters worse, he’d let his grades slip during his senior year in high school so he could have fun with his high school friends. In one fell swoop, he weakened his study habits before he’d even gotten to college.
The increased degree of freedom and independence was too much for him. His relationship with his parents suffered and so did his grades.
How well do you think your child will do in college? Is your child a major procrastinator? Is she smart but easily overwhelmed by what’s set in front of her? Know your child’s capabilities and think carefully about whether he or she can handle the type of college you’ve always dreamed of.
By the way, Jesse’s story ended well! He did graduate and is now a teacher in California.
3. Ask Yourself Whether Your Dreams Are Overshadowing Your Child’s
This is definitely a family decision, particularly if you’re paying for college. But ultimately, it’s hopefully your child’s decision. You know your student will be successful if he knows he’s blazing his own trail.
My former boss’ son went to a state university despite the fact that she really wanted him to go to a private liberal arts college. She’s the proud alumna of a liberal arts college herself and works at a liberal arts college and knows the benefits. He had nothing to do with any of it and shipped himself off to a state university. Of course, she’s happy he chose a great state university but had to give up on her long-standing dream of him attending her alma mater. (She’d always pictured his flaming red hair bobbing up and down her alma mater’s soccer field.) It was a little bit of a letdown to know that he’d never play soccer there like she had.
Nobody warns you that you might have to mourn this a little bit. There’s research out there that says most moms have a bout of real grief after they drop off their kids at college. (Note: There’s good news. Nine out of 10 moved on from this feeling within a month or two, and some do sooner.)
But nobody tells you that you might be deeply disappointed for a while about The College Choice that Never Materialized. Lots of kids refuse to go to their parents’ alma maters or where their parents really want them to go. (I’ve seen it happen firsthand after so much effort to attract these kids.)
4. Consider the Big Picture
The goal is college. The goal is to get into college — and make it, and graduate and get a job. (And be happy.) If your child feels he must do X, then X and X to get there (whatever those Xs are) then it’s important to remember one thing: Your child’s still going to college. If you have to tell yourself that a million times, do it. But keep the big picture in mind. Your goal was to save for college — and your child is going.
Now, it’s still important to make him aware of certain oppositions you have. Maybe the school he’s going to isn’t accredited or is in a known gang neighborhood — or whatever. Obviously, if he will endanger himself or his future, it’s not a good idea and you must have that important discussion.
5. Talk to Your Teen
Yeah! Have you had the deep-down, heart-to-heart discussions with your child about college that last late into the night? (This is what I’m picturing in 10 years when my oldest starts her journey. Please tell me this will happen!) Obviously, how much you talk about college depends a lot on both of your personalities and how open your child is to talking about the college search.
Evaluate the Academic Fit Together
The academic fit is obviously one of the most important parts of the college experience. Ask your teen what he’d like to get out of the academic experience and what his priorities are.
Talk about the academic differences between a community college, a state university and a liberal arts college. Talk about academic rigor between like institutions. A small rural college might pack an academic punch but an Ivy League institution is obviously going to kick it up a notch.
It might be interesting to hear about his biases and perceptions. Make sure your teen is getting his information from a reputable source. His well-intentioned assistant baseball coach might not be as reliable a source as a college professor, admission counselor or financial aid representative.
There’s no shame if both of you aren’t sure what the exact facts are. That’s what the college search is all about — it’s a fact-finding mission. Do whatever you can to be sure you’re getting the right facts about academics.
Also, remember that a lot of colleges pay to be on the “Best of” lists. Use your best judgment when you’re Googling yet another “Best Small Liberal Arts Colleges in the Northwest” list. Your best bet is to visit each college, ask lots of questions, sit in on classes and make those determinations for yourself.
Talk About the Importance of Social Growth
I’m going to flat-out say it: There’s a big difference between a commuter college versus a residential campus. If your child’s a social butterfly, she may already be thinking she wants to live in a sorority or on a residential campus. She may naturally gravitate that direction.
A more introverted student may want to go the community college route because he’s hoping to live at home and keep life how he knows it.
But what’s best for both of these types of students in terms of social growth? An introverted student might thrive at a university, a bubbling social butterfly might be able to focus better in a smaller environment.
Have a Discussion About Retention
Retention rate is certainly something that doesn’t come to mind immediately during the college search. I believe it deserves careful investigation.
What is retention, anyway? A college or university’s retention rate is measured by its percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. Let’s use my recruit, Jesse, as an example. He studied full-time in the fall semester of 2016 and kept studying at the college during the next fall semester. He was included in that cohort of students who retained during their first year.
Here’s an easy way to learn about a school’s retention rate. Check out College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics. I really love that tool! Just type in the name of the school, find it in the drop-down, then click on “retention.” You’ll be able to see first-year retention and overall graduation rates and a lot of other great information.
You want this retention rate to be as high as possible. Steer clear of a college if its retention rate is really low — like in the 30th percentile. This means a large number of students transfer out after freshman year. If your student is really excited about a college with a low retention rate, you’d better quiz the admission counselors at that school about why its retention rate is so low.
Talk About How a Visit is Really Important
Has your teen already decided where he’s going to go without checking it out?
Just because your child’s got his mind made up, try to strike a deal. Teach your child how to schedule a college visit at one large, one medium and one small school to give him an array of options.
Talk About Money
Is your fear about money manifesting itself in disappointment? In other words, are you disappointed because your child has chosen a really expensive school and you’re not sure you can make it happen?
Conversely, have you set aside a pile of money and your child isn’t going to use it? Maybe he’s opted for a community college but you planned for an Ivy League. Is the amount you’ve invested equally proportionate to your giant expectations?
The money part of college can bring out all sorts of emotions and fear is a big one. Just make sure your child understands that your disappointment is placed on money — not his or her decision to go to college.
6. Know that Your Child Can Go into Any Industry with a Degree from Any College
This is huge. In fact, there’s some major evidence that pinpoints exactly what matters most in lifetime success. Want to know the secret?
It’s grit. Grit is the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals. It’s a stick-to-itiveness that simply having a degree won’t magically do to instigate success. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has said, “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit is living life as a marathon, not a sprint.”
If your child decides that College X (which you’re not a big fan of) is the best place for him, rest easy if you’ve noticed your child’s excellent work ethic. Your kiddo will be just fine.
Disappointment Happens — But Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Again, you know the prize is that calligraphy-clad diploma at the end of the road. Your child’s going to get there. Often, good decision making for success in college includes making excellent decisions about college from the get-go.
Make sure you tell your child you’re proud of so many things, including his choice to go to college (even if you’re not excited about the path he’s taking to get there).
Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and in this case, “Know thy child” is so applicable.
My husband likes to get up every Saturday morning and watch fishing shows. He’s not even really an avid fisherman; he simply enjoys watching professional fishermen reel in giant, slimy fish. My kids like it, too. They all group around the television and “Ooh” and “Ahh” every time some guy catches a largemouth bass.
Why am I telling you this? Because you may feel like finding the right college is kind of like finding the biggest bass in Lake Okeechobee. Right?
Building relationships with people at colleges can make the “fishing” process seem a little less daunting. It brings more clarity to the college search and helps your child hone in on those “Aha” moments.
Anna Dealy, associate director of advancement communication at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, used to work in enrollment at a private liberal arts college. She says her favorite part of working in admission is building friendships with students and families.
Dealy says it’s important for parents to help students understand that colleges wantto get to know you, then help guide the relationship-building process.
“It helps for students to know that those of us working in enrollment aren’t scary,” says Dealy. “We want to meet students and want them to succeed. Maybe if they know that from the beginning, they might not think building relationships with admission offices is so foreign and unknown.”
The thing is, you and your high schooler have to work toward building relationships. Plus, your student has to be willing to get on board. (That may feel like reeling in a shark!)
As with most things, it’s better to do it together.
Add College Contacts with Your Student
Make sure you reach out to people during the college search together. It’s really intimidating for your child to have to do it alone, particularly when your high schooler may not be great at getting to know new people. That said, anytime you need to talk with a financial aid officer, set up a college visit, talk scholarships with an admission counselor — whatever it is — put your child on speaker and encourage him or her to make the first move. It’s time to start learning how to interact with anyone now — it’s good life skills training.
Encourage Your Student to Attend High School College Rep Visits
Encourage your kiddo to attend college rep visits at his or her high school. Colleges usually make the rounds at high schools in fall and spring and intermittently during the winter.
It’s a great idea to get to know admission counselors through those visits. Your child’s school counselor or college and career counselor will have a list of dates when colleges will visit.
You may hear that high school teachers prefer that your child stays in class, but this is a great relationship-building opportunity, particularly if your child’s classmates all stay in class! That way, your child will get lots of one-on-one attention, particularly if your student has an eye on a smaller school.
How can you do this together? You might want to request some private time with the admission counselor and your child if you have specific questions. Call the high school and find out whether the college rep can spare some extra time. Or go directly to the source and contact the college rep.
Get to Know Alumni
Even if alumni graduated 20 years ago, they’re still great people to build relationships with because they’re the ultimate cheerleaders. They can be great at explaining the heart and soul of an institution — that usually doesn’t change! (You’ll still hear current students talk about some of the same things that older alumni describe.)
Alumni may also do interviews with your student as a required or optional part of a school’s admission process. In that case, you can help your child set up the interview, but it’s best if you stay home. You can help your child dress for success, practice interview tips and make sure your child follows up after the meeting. This is just one area where you’ll have to sit on the sidelines!
Go to College Fairs with Your Child
College fairs are a great way to learn more about what colleges offer. Go to a college fair with your child so he or she doesn’t have to go it alone. The school counselor at your child’s high school should have a list of local and regional college fairs you can attend. National college fairs can also offer a great opportunity for you and your son or daughter to communicate with a college representative together — these fairs are usually packed.
Come with a list of specific questions about campus culture but leave the questions about class size at home. You can find that online.
Oh, and make sure your child asks the first few questions!
Give Your Child Opportunities to Get to Know Students
Obviously, the students are the life and soul of a college or university. The best place to get to know them is during college visits on campus. Encourage your child to talk to the students during these visits. This can be such a challenging thing for a high schooler! They might feel like they’re kindergarteners all over again.
Prep your student ahead of time for what to expect. There’s nothing worse for a college student tour guide than trying to give a tour to a family who’s too timid to ask questions or make conversation. It’s also tough on the tour guide when parents dominate the conversation — FYI!
Beyond the college visit, are there students around your community who attend the colleges your child is interested in? They can clue them in on a lot — campus culture, tips for navigating the first year, the best residence halls, where to go for resources, programs, etc. It’s fun for your student to hear all this from a student perspective and it’s instructive because you also get away from all the college marketing hoopla. College students can be completely real and help your child get the scoop on it all.
Meet with Faculty and Staff
Meeting with faculty and staff is one of those things that can make a kid die a thousand deaths, as you probably already know. Talking to a financial aid guru, faculty member or other staff member can be terrifying for a 17-year-old high school student. This is one of those times when your child may never say, “Mom, I need you,” but he does!
“Faculty members can really give students that level of comfort that someone in enrollment might not know about the details in the area of study and success stories. Faculty are huge resources of finding the right fit. That’s what it’s all about for students — finding the right fit,” Dealy says.
Getting to know faculty and staff may even help college professionals “look out” for you during the college search. Here’s an example. When I worked in the admission office, a professor decided to collect money from other faculty and staff to offer up scholarships for deserving students. He amassed an impressive amount — enough to offer students an extra $1,000 to their aid awards.
He asked admission counselors for the names of who they thought deserved the scholarships the most. I very vividly remember him asking me about the students in my territory.
Naturally, the students who knew our admission counselors best received the scholarships because they’d gone through the trouble of building relationships with them. Obviously, this is a super-specific example and doesn’t happen at every college, but do you see how there could be far-reaching benefits for students and families?
Know Your Student’s Admission Counselor
Getting to know admission and financial aid is a good place to start, says Dealy.
“Based on the people I’ve met in the enrollment industry, we want to be resources and advocates, help students thrive, help them find the right fit and go out in the world and be successful. We believe that all students can do that and we want to help them along on their journeys,” Dealy says.
Get in Touch for All the Right Reasons
So here’s the other thing. When you’re “fishing,” you want to be sure you’re fostering genuine relationships with college contacts. This isn’t a good approach: “Let’s make friends with key people at colleges just so they go above and beyond to help us.”
It’s got to be genuine and sincere, because, if anything, you’re teaching your child how to be a really nice person. The best relationships are reciprocal friendships — each party gets something out of it. Yes, college representatives are “hitting goals” by getting your child to attend their colleges. But most really, really want to recruit graduates — students who will enroll, love the experience and graduate to be proud alumni.
Here it is, the secret to creating a rich experience: Build relationships during the college search. Building relationships will transform you and your child’s college search experience. Some days, you may think your high school student flat-out has no desire to...
Your high school graduate may be dragging his feet on the college decision, and it’s not hard to figure out why. During this corona-crazy time, you’re trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. Your teen may be struggling to a degree you can’t even fathom.
His life has flipped upside down — arguably even more than yours. (Did you withstand a worldwide epidemic that required you to kiss prom, graduation and the senior state track meet good-bye? Of course not.) You might feel a tiny whirl of relief to know that your child may not have to decide on a college until July 1. Whew! (Some schools’ deadlines are still May or June 1, however. If your child had a pile of schools with June 1 or July 1 deadlines, never fear. Most schools still have openings past the deadline.)
Your child might be a bit fearful of the future. As a parent, these changes have crushed you too, and you might be grieving the loss of “what should have been.” Here’s how to help pilot your college-bound child through the next hurdle (with baggage nobody could have anticipated).
I worked in college admission for 12 years and I heard so many parents say, “It’s my child’s decision, not mine.” I never loved that response because I always knew students wanted their parents’ input when it came to making such a big decision. Now more than ever, your child needs to know that you’re there to help.
Furthermore, your teen could be taking cues from you. Do you watch the news on a constant loop or fret about the future?
Remember that it might be hard for your teen to articulate everything he’s feeling — kind of like when he was two and couldn’t explain that his shoes were too tight.
Create a safe communication environment and listen when your child talks. Don’t forget to check your own fears about what’s coming down the pike.
Let your college-bound teen know that you’re there to help him through the decision. Just remember, teens want their parents to help them with this decision, particularly when they’re struggling. Talk about how life can be uncertain but things will get back to normal.
Take Advantage of Colleges’ Extended Deadlines
Carnegie Dartlet, a marketing services company that specializes in higher education institutions, surveyed 4,848 high school seniors about how current events have impacted their college search. The survey found that many students want an extension to the traditional May 1 National Candidate Reply Date — the national deadline for making a college decision.
In fact, 67 percent of students surveyed say they want an extension, at least until June 1 or July 1, and those numbers jump to 74-80 percent for underrepresented minority populations and students with higher financial need.
Breathe! As you can see, your child isn’t the only one who feels this way.
Many colleges have complied with students’ wishes and extended the deadline to accommodate these needs. Take advantage of the extra time — and be proactive. Launch a pros and cons list. Dive even deeper and do a heart/gut check. Don’t be afraid to take a trip down memory lane with your child. Remind him about the awesome college visit at College ABC last fall where you snagged a picture of him beaming during his college visit.
Ask What’s Holding Your Child Back from Making the Decision
What’s holding your child back from making the decision? Is it all the changes combined — summer orientation changes, school delays and extensions? Is it the distance from home? Maybe it’s you? (Again, you may be unwittingly showcasing some anxiety yourself.)
Get to the root of the problem. Ask straight up, “Is there any reason why we can’t put down a deposit for School X right now? It’s the school you’ve been talking about all year.” Then listen carefully to your child’s response.
Here are some common reasons that might be holding your child back.
The Coronavirus (or Worry in General)
Everyone’s plans have changed and it could also cause your child to question everything. It’s up to you to be a calming influence. Try to help your child gain some perspective on his college choice. Try as hard as you can to be a positive, uplifting influence.
In some cases, you may recognize that COVID-19 has aggravated anxiety in your teen and it may be a wise decision for your child to stay closer to home or make a different decision altogether. If necessary, seek outside help.
Distance from Home
The majority (56.2 percent) of public four-year college students attend an institution under an hour’s drive away. Nearly 70 percent attend within two hours of their home, according to the latest Higher Education Research Institute’s CIRP survey.
Your child might be feeling a tad unsettled about making a decision to attend school 10 hours away. Ask if that’s an issue and whether there’s a school that appeals to your high school graduate that’s closer to home. Note: Your child would not be the first one to change his mind at the last minute. It happens — and it’s okay. It’s better to realize this now instead of later!
Is your cost-conscious child close to choosing a college with a hefty sticker price — which would require a handful of loans? If so, that could be what’s holding him back. (And you might be nervous, too.)
There are lots of ways to remedy this situation. Now that COVID-19 has happened, your financial situation may have changed considerably. If it has, let the college know. You may be able to fill out the college’s special circumstance form, where you can indicate a job loss or some other changes in your financial status, including excessive medical bills or another type of serious expense.
Are there other scholarship opportunities available? Find out whether there are additional scholarships your child can still apply for. There may be some new ones that have popped up since the last time you talked with the admission office!
Is work-study available? Work-study is a federally-funded program that can help your son or daughter pay for college. Your child will work on campus (sometimes off campus) and earn money just like in a regular job. Your son or daughter may not have been awarded work-study at all, and this is the time to ask whether it’s available. If work-study is already plugged into the financial aid award, ask if more work-study money can be added.
Was my FAFSA information correct? Ask some deeper questions about the FAFSA — you might have filled it out incorrectly! Was your expected family contribution (EFC) inflated due to one-time income? (EFC is an indicative number that colleges use to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible for.) Did you include an IRA or 401(k), which isn’t required for the FAFSA?
The bottom line: Ask the admission office good questions!
Don’t forget to communicate with colleges about changes in your financial situation. If you or your spouse has lost a job, tell the colleges on your child’s short list. Talking about financial changes could change your college-bound teen’s financial aid awards — in a good way.
Seek Answers to Objections
Help your child get the answers to what’s holding him back from making a decision. For example, if he’s worried about the strength of the engineering program between two schools, reach out to the admission counselor at each school to get some more data. Reach out to a professor. Ask more questions! Draw on those relationships you’ve built throughout the process to help your child make a final college decision.
Maybe your child’s holding back because his friends or his girlfriend are all headed to the state school down the road and he’s been planning to go to a school on the opposite coast. (I hated it when this came up when I was an admission counselor!)
If he’s starting to get cold feet, remind him why he initially chose that institution. (There were likely some good reasons!) It’s important that he chooses the best school for him.
Once you’ve gotten answers to everything, sit back and relax. In most cases, you still have time, even if the deadline has passed. When push comes to shove, every student does decide.
Do the Heart/Gut Test
The heart/gut test is something that a former college president of my alma mater used to talk about all the time. He’d explain that it’s not enough to take numbers into account. College isn’t a transactional experience — it’s about people! It’s not just about pretty buildings or the number of electives you have to take. He used to urge students to take into account the feeling you’d get — did your child feel like he belonged at a particular school?
Which campus did your son thrive on during the visit? Did he seem to come alive as soon as he met the tennis team? Withdraw when he met the abrasive engineering professor at your alma mater? Did your daughter light up when she met her admission counselor or the quirky communication studies professor with “Citizen Kane” posters plastered all over his office?
You get the idea. Don’t be afraid to go deep on this. Also, don’t be afraid to share your observations with your child. Say, “I noticed you loved the tour at College X and chatted animatedly with the tour guide. Do you think you felt just as comfortable at College Y or not?”
Look for the academic, social and financial fit — and do the gut and heart test. Ask your child where he or she felt most at home.
When you know, sometimes you just know.
If your child hasn’t gotten that “feeling” anywhere by now, go back to the drawing board — there are still openings at schools across the country. Another visit might be in order over the summer, though without students on campus, it can be tricky to feel the same energy.
Communicate with Admission Counselors
Contact admission counselors at the schools your child’s still considering. Trust me, my experience as an admission counselor tells me that colleges want to hear from you and build relationships. They don’t want you to go through turmoil alone.
Explain what’s going on and why there are some concerns. Most colleges have trained their admission counselors on how to communicate their college’s COVID-19 response. Talking with admission counselors is also a good way to evaluate how well a particular college has handled the crisis!
Colleges should make your teen feel better about the situation, provide a real human connection and help your child make a final decision.
A Different Decision May Be Necessary — and That’s Okay
Your teen may not be able to stomach leaving to go to college 1,000 miles away at this point, no matter how many times you remind him about his last wonderful on-campus experience.
This crisis has changed everyone. Tell your child that it’s okay to stay closer to home. Spend time thinking about what other options are out there. Remember, just because your child feels more comfortable with a semester at the local community college, it doesn’t mean he will never go to College ABC. He could be saying “See you later!”
Take a Deep Breath and Be There
Sometimes, it takes the good ol’ pro and con list to finally make the final decision. Sometimes seeing the solid “pro” column helps.
What happens when the “pro” side is a mile long for one school but your daughter really feels the fit more at a different school? Hey, it’s proof that the heart/gut test works!
Teens can feel their parents take an emotional and financial hit during this downturn and need more reassurance and guidance than ever. Support your teen through this all-important decision-making process. Remember, this could very well be the very first really big decision your child has ever made. Think positive: COVID-19 could make you (and your teen’s) decision making processes stronger than ever!
Good luck! I’d love to hear about your child’s final decision!
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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, WealthfrontorSigFig.
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.
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.