Talking to your parents about money can be awkward.

Knowing if or how much your parents can contribute to your education is information you need sooner rather than later. “Start the conversation early,” says financial coach Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, founder of The Fiscal Femme and author of The 30-Day Money Cleanse. This information will inform every step of your college process, from building your college list to choosing a school. Not sure how to start the conversation? Below, experts weigh in with their approaches for broaching this delicate subject.

1. Do Your Research

Before you talk to your parents, it may help to get organized. High school counselors often recommend that students divide their schools into tiers based on the likelihood of acceptance: reach, target and safety. You’ll also want to do this from a financial perspective. “Take stock of the best- and worst-case scenarios,” says Lazetta Rainey Braxton, a certified financial planner and founder of Financial Fountains. “Of course you’ll factor in tuition and board, but also think about geographic distance for travel home.” You’ll want to talk to your high school counselor to get their feedback on which schools are likely to offer you scholarship money. Some schools with higher price tags can end up being more affordable if they award more scholarship money and financial aid. Doing your homework on schools beyond just your odds of getting in can help you decide which ones make the most financial sense when you raise the subject with your parents.

For some parents, their goal is to be able to contribute as much as possible to education, for others it might not be on their radar.

Ashley Feinstein Gerstley

2. Go Big Picture

Gerstley recommends that you start with a broad question for your parents, along the lines of: “What’s your vision for paying for college?” That allows them to speak more generally about what they want—and can afford—to contribute without putting expectations on them. “For some parents, their goal is to be able to contribute as much as possible to education; for others, it might not be on their radar,” says Gerstley, and you won’t know where your parents fall on this spectrum unless you ask. The goal is to let them take the lead in framing what they have in mind, so you know exactly where they stand.

3. Take Advantage of Net Price Calculators

If money isn’t something that’s discussed openly in your household, you may need to get creative to get the information you need. The net price calculator is a tool every school has on its website that allows parents to enter their financial information and get a ballpark estimate of what that particular school will cost. If your parents are reluctant to share their information with you, encourage them to input it directly into the tool and then you can discuss the results together as a family.

4. Use the FAFSA®

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) can be a valuable tool for getting into the specifics of paying for college. Fill it out with your parents and use it as a starting point to discuss your family’s ability to contribute financially to your education. Cindy Morton, of Rockdale Virtual Campus in Conyers, Georgia, who’s been a school counselor for over 19 years, also suggests using the Federal Student Aid Estimator. It is a free way to estimate how much aid you may receive and can help paint a clearer picture of how much your family could have to pay for college. Instead of asking a parent point blank, “How much are you willing to spend for college?” this approach shifts the focus to how much financial aid may be available. That can help lessen the sticker shock and set you up for a more productive chat.

5. Call In Reinforcements

“I’m usually the one who starts the money conversation with parents,” says Richard Porth, an independent college admissions consultant. “It’s a very delicate conversation. Parents may not want to divulge some financial information in front of their 16-year-old.” If you feel uncomfortable broaching the topic, don’t be afraid to enlist your high school counselor for advice. They’re seasoned experts and can help you jump-start the communication in a constructive way.

Dealing with the dollars and cents of funding your higher education can seem stressful and a bit tricky, but once you start an open dialogue with your parents, you’ll be able to make more informed choices. And remember: The conversation doesn’t stop after you enroll. You’ll need to revisit the money talk annually, so finding a way to get comfortable discussing finances with your parents now will make it easier on everyone in the future.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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