For most families, college is a huge financial investment. For most families, the cost of the college is the ultimate deciding factor in whether or not a student goes there. But strangely, the financial considerations are the last thing many families talk about, often waiting until spring of the 12th grade. Students can make better decisions and have less anxiety if they know up front what the parameters are. High school students understand that even if they get into their dream school, they won’t go there if they can’t afford it. Yet most of them have no idea what is and isn’t affordable to their family, so they’re working blind until the last minute.

When you apply to college, you can’t let the price be a consideration. You don’t typically find out what kind of financial aid package you’ll receive, what kind of work-study you may be offered, what kind of loans you might be qualified for, until after you’ve been accepted. You can see the “sticker price” of a college, and you can get an estimate of what you might be charged, but application time is still too early to let price be a factor. When students tell me that they can’t afford a certain school, I always tell them that they may indeed not be able to afford it—but they should go through with the application and make the college actually tell them they can’t afford it.

But price will be a factor, eventually. After the financial aid offers are in and settled, after the scholarships are applied for, after the reality of student loans has been thought about, you and your family are going to have to make some very basic “we cannot afford this” decisions.

For a lot of families, money is very difficult to talk about. Lots of parents are really uncomfortable with getting into specifics with their children. Lots of parents don’t want their kids to know how little—or how much—money they have. The idea of having a very detailed discussion of family finances, including looking at tax returns, is really difficult for a lot of people. Which is why you need to start the conversation as soon as possible. The first round—or two or three or ten rounds—of the conversation may not go well. You need to not wait until forms are due and decisions have to be made to begin the first round.

Having a good sense of the financial situation can also help relieve a lot of the stress around applications. It takes away one layer of mystery from a very mystified process. It helps with the disappointment of not going someplace that’s a great match because you can’t afford it. It helps you have a better bargaining position when the financial aid discussions begin if you know what your bottom line is ahead of time. It helps you be a part of the adult conversation.

Some questions to ask your family:

·       do you know the sticker prices of the schools I’m applying to?

·        How much are you planning to spend on college? (The initial answer is often “nothing! Get scholarships!”)

·       How much do you think is reasonable to spend per year on college?

·       How much do you think is reasonable to borrow per year for college?

·       How much of a financial contribution are you expecting of me?

These aren’t easy questions to ask, and the discussions might be awkward. But you’re going to have them, and starting them sooner is better.

If you’re fortunate and think you can afford the sticker price of the schools you’re applying to without financial aid, that’s wonderful. Maybe your family has a lot of money. Maybe you and your family have saved up over the years. Maybe you’ve received some great scholarships. Maybe you have the proverbial Rich Uncle. But don’t avoid asking these questions anyway. Having these conversations will, at the very least, help with a sense of gratitude and perspective. Also ask your family what the money will go to if not college. For example, something like “We can afford this school, but if I get a full scholarship what will the money go to instead?” That can be an interesting conversation.

If nothing else, talking to your family about money will be a good exercise in how to handle difficult conversations. Those don’t ever go away.