The Washington Post

Freshman financial orientation

Dozens of freshman and returning students move into the George Washington University Mabel Nelson Thurston Hall in Washington on August 25, 2012. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Thousands of high school graduates will be starting their first semester of college soon, and they have a long list of things they want and need.

But don’t just send them off with dorm-room basics or a backpack of books without the financial essentials they’ll also need.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

I’ve put together five things to pass along:

●Become familiar with budgeting: The parties, the clothes and the temptation to keep up with the more well-heeled students will be all around them. Before your freshmen head off to campus, have the budget talk. Show them how it is done. Practice it with their college shopping. That’s what my husband and I did with our daughter Olivia, now a sophomore at the University of Maryland. Last year at this time, we made her come up with a budget based on what she wanted and needed for her dorm room.

I wouldn’t take her shopping until I saw the budget and her shopping list. She huffed, but in the end she did it. And you know what? She began to make great choices based on what she had budgeted.

If you don’t budget yourself, it’s hard to make the case that your kids should. If you’ve been challenged in this department, find someone who can help — it’s what the National Foundation for Credit Counseling recommends. The organization has member agencies nationwide that can help with the budget talk. Make an appointment to see a credit counselor. Some people think the nonprofit agencies are only there to help folks get out of debt. But the counselors can also help on an assortment of finance-related issues. You can find an agency by calling 800-388-2227 or by going online to

“Money conversations are difficult, particularly within families,” said Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the NFCC. “Financial advice from an independent third party such as a trained and certified credit counselor will preserve the relationship and stand a better chance of being followed.”

●Become familiar with banking: If your children have never really managed a bank account, they need a crash course. And when I say manage, I mean take them beyond just knowing how to withdraw money with their ATM card. It’s time they bank the way you do, which is to say they need to understand how to balance their checkbook even if they do everything electronically.

You need to have a discussion about the high price of overdraft fees. You might consider having your children opt out of having overdraft protection. This way, the kids really have to manage what they have. Better to have an attempted purchase with a debit card declined because of insufficient funds than rack up huge overdraft fees.

A few years before our daughter went off to college, we had her open a bank account when she started working after school. She controls it without any oversight. On her own, she signed up with to help manage her money. She has self-imposed spending limits and gets alerts when she exceeds them.

● Become familiar with buying discount books: We gave all the responsibility of buying books to our daughter. She in turn became good at finding discount textbooks. She used a variety of Web sites to help manage the costs. She bought used ones and rented others. She also waited until the first day of class to make sure which books were absolutely necessary, although this strategy could mean a delay in having material needed for class because a book has to be shipped.

The Student Public Interest Research Groups, a network of nonprofit, nonpartisan student advocacy organizations, has been lobbying for years for textbooks to be more affordable. For tips on saving on textbooks, go to

●Become intimately involved with what you owe: From Day 1, the student ought to know exactly what it costs to attend college — down to every single fee. This is particularly important if loans are being taken out.

Finally, this is for you, parent, grandparent or guardian:

●Let it go: In the song “Let it Go” from Disney’s animated movie “Frozen,” Idina Menzel sings, “It’s time to see what I can do.”

If you’ve done your job and taught your children what they need to know about handling money, let them take care of things. Coming from a control freak like me, this isn’t easy to say.

Watch, give guidance when you see them faltering. But let go. My husband and I are so proud of our daughter. During her freshman year, she established a goal to keep a certain amount of money in her savings account. If she wanted to go out or buy something and didn’t have enough money in her checking account, she resisted the temptation to dip into her savings. And she didn’t call her mommy or daddy.

As the good book says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or Comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested.To read previous Color of Money columns, go to


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