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Family Almanac

Give College Students a Parental Course in Personal Economics

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page C08

Q. My husband and I have four sons between 16 and 22 -- one in high school and three in college -- and I feel as if I'm hemorrhaging cash.

All have attended Catholic schools and the three college students go to private universities. My husband and I pay for their tuition, books and car insurance and also give them small weekly stipends, but it is never enough. Requests for vacation money, clothes money and entertainment never cease. The final straw: Our eldest son suggests that we give him a cross-country trip as a graduation present. Clearly he doesn't realize how difficult it has been for us to pay for all those years of private education.

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My husband is a professional and a naturalized U.S. citizen who has worked extremely hard to provide a very comfortable life for us all. Therein lies my problem. How comfortable are we supposed to make it for our sons?

In fairness to them, they all have held summer jobs since they were 14 and they have worked five hours a week during the school year to supplement their spending money.

But I don't think I've taught them the true value of a dollar. At what point is it wise and fair to say, "Enough"?

A.Your three older sons are men; you shouldn't treat them as boys anymore.

You can afford to pay for their room, board, tuition and car insurance, and so you should. And you should continue to give them their stipends and enough money to get home for big holidays, too, but don't pay for everything they want and don't let them live better than most of the students on campus. If nothing else, they would be resented.

Instead, insist that your sons save most of their summertime income to supplement their stipends at school and that they -- not you -- pay for whatever luxuries they might want next year. They can't learn the value of a dollar unless they learn to spend it cautiously, and that's much more likely to happen if they're spending their own money rather than yours.

But first ask each son for a list of his projected costs for the coming school year, including sports and dates, to see how much their savings will cover and if they will need a bigger stipend than you think they do. It's better to know the worst now than to be hammered by a steady stream of requests for money later.

You also should send these stipends once a month, rather than every week, so your sons will learn to handle a paycheck, but don't send more money than you promised. They may have a few lean days before the next check arrives, but this will teach them to manage their money more carefully.

These recommendations will probably seem harsh to them and perhaps to you, but if your sons work hard this summer, they should be able to stretch their savings well into the new year. You'll still have to make up the difference, but only for the last few months of school and for a few legitimate (and inevitable) emergencies. Don't pony up for vacations, entertainment and clothes, however. If a son needs a tie for a dance, he can either borrow one from his roommate or buy one at the thrift shop.

Since clothes are usually more expensive in a college town, have your sons shop when they're home, where you can also teach them how to judge quality and especially how to hit the sales. They need to master these money-saving skills before they graduate from college.

They'll still ask you to pay for some frivolous activity occasionally, but don't explode or tell them how hard their dad must work to send them to school. This will make them feel guilty and defensive and you'll end up in a messy argument. Simply say, "I'm sorry, sweetie. I'd go over my budget if I gave you any more money this month."

If one of your sons asks you for something extravagant, however, like a cross-country trip, don't take it so seriously. It's better to sympathize with him and tell him you know just how he feels, because you and his dad dearly want to take a round-the-world cruise one day.

When you share dreams with your sons and talk -- adult to adult -- about money and money problems, you put your relationship on a more equal footing. This should help your sons see things from your point of view, but they will be self-supporting before they come around completely.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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