(Illustration by Studio Muti for The Washington Post)

Along with shopping for dorm essentials and writing tuition checks, parents and their college-bound kids face another money question this summer: Who will pay for day-to-day expenses at school, and should parents provide an allowance to their college students?

Some parents, such as Amanda DeVries, plan to pay for everything. Her son Zach will be a freshman this fall in the honors college at the University of Oklahoma, and Zach’s parents will cover tuition, room and board, books and fraternity fees, plus pay a monthly allowance for incidentals.

“I want him to enjoy his college years. He has the rest of his life to work hard for things,” she says. DeVries hasn’t decided how much her son’s monthly allowance will be but is guessing it might be around $200 — she’s trying to settle on an amount that’s enough “that he doesn’t want for anything, but that he doesn’t just have unlimited funds at his disposal, either.”

Linda Garcia’s son Dylan won’t be getting an allowance. Although his parents are covering tuition, room and board, fees and books at the University of Georgia, everything else — including gas to drive home from college — is Dylan’s responsibility. “He has worked since he was 16 for this very reason,” Garcia says. “This is not saying that I won’t give him 20 [dollars] sometimes. Just because he is my son and I like to do it.” Those occasional extras will be gifts, though, and not an amount that her son can count on.

When it comes to money and the transition to young adulthood, there’s no one answer to suit every family. Still, experts can offer some advice on the allowance decision and on how to help college students become financially responsible.

Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood,” has seen it work well when students cover their own expenses through summer-job savings or school-year jobs. If parents plan to provide help with expenses, though, she says it’s important to allow the student some independence in managing a budget. “This keeps them from having to ask for money every time they need it, a situation which can be infantilizing for the student and keep the parent too much abreast of the student’s day-to-day activities,” Damour says.

Although parents shouldn’t micromanage the day-to-day spending of money at college, they should be discussing budgeting with their kids before the kids leave home — both in the years and the months before college. Preparing for financial independence should begin years before kids are on their own, says Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure.

“Kids can’t be expected to leave home with a developed sense of financial management unless they learned it ahead of time, at home,” Lahey says.

Ron Lieber, New York Times money columnist and author of “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money,” agrees that parents need to involve children in their financial well-being, including managing their own bank accounts (whether a parent deposits money there or not) and getting informed about their college loans, which tend to have complex terms. The goal is to transition the student to financial independence.

Regardless of whether kids have been involved in their own finances before, the months before college are a key time for parents and students to dig into these topics together.
“It’s often a good idea to have the student estimate what his/her needs will be, then go a few months with that budget and see how it works out,” Damour says. “There can be unexpected expenses or fewer expenses than anticipated — a good system should allow for some recalibration.” The student should be an active participant in the process, learning and thinking carefully about money management.

Like Damour, Lieber also anticipates that things might not go perfectly with a college student’s spending. Don’t rush to bail them out of every money problem, he advises, because “this is the last chance for them to learn from their financial mistakes before it really starts to count.”

Better for them to run out of Starbucks money and learn a budgeting lesson now, the thinking goes, than for them to run out of money later for the rent or the grocery bill — or for those student loans that will start coming due soon after graduation.

Although the details of each family’s arrangement may vary, experts agree that if parents haven’t done so already, college is time to start letting go and increasing a young adult’s financial independence by inviting their active participation, letting them manage a budget and taking on increasing responsibility for their finances.

With that in mind, Lieber cautions parents to think hard before providing too much. “Every student,” he advises, “should have some skin in the game,” usually savings from summer or school-year jobs. “Even if you can afford to hand money over each month on top of tuition and room and board, is that what’s best for them?”

Sharon Holbrook is a writer living in Cleveland. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @Sharon_Holbrook.

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