Financial Planning: The Art of Helping

Many parents feel responsible for helping pay for their children’s college expenses, and may even tap limited retirement resources or cosign loans to fund these expectations.  However well-intentioned this may be, offering too much help can leave parents financially destabilized.  The students’ development can also be limited if less is required of them.  The American psychologist B.F. Skinner seems to confirm this when he states: “By giving too much help, we postpone the acquisition of effective behavior and perpetuate the need for help.”[1]  Overly generous parents may, in effect, inadvertently deprive students of significant learning experiences that are needed to help them acquire important financial management skills.

In addition to any financial assistance they may offer, parents must also consider the role that they can play in helping their student wisely assume responsibility for his/her own financial well-being.  One way to do this is to assume the role of a consultant.  An experienced consultant can help their client (son or daughter) identify goals, think about options and strategies, and guide them to reach their own conclusions about any best course of action.  They will do this without taking full responsibility for the student’s needs and concerns.  As the student accepts greater responsibility, college can serve as a time in which they will develop a working budget, establish good credit, and acquire financial management skills needed in their adult lives.

As you consider the role you can play, as a parent/consultant, the following ideas may prove helpful:

Share experiences – Give your student the benefit of your experience.  Sharing appropriate information about your experiences with money management can help them develop a more realistic attitude about their financial circumstances.

Establish Parameters – Communicate clearly what part you can play, and be specific about the part for which they will be financially responsible.

Provide a Set Amount of Support – If you expect to provide some assistance, help your student learn how to live on a set amount of money for a period of time, similar to a regular paycheck.  If necessary, it is important to give your student the opportunity to struggle, a little, if they run out of money before the end of the month.

Reflect Real World Realities – Make your assistance conditional upon reasonable expectations and performance (subject to continuing adjustment and negotiation).  In some cases, it may be appropriate to base your support upon a minimum GPA, and minimum enrollment, or to draft an actual loan agreement if you lend funds.

As parents carefully consider the impact their help may have upon their student's development and offer support in ways that will foster greater independence and self-reliance, they can help their student wisely assume responsibility for their own financial well-being.  As B.F. Skinner concludes:  “One has most effectively helped others when one can stop helping them altogether.”[2]  

(parent as consultant concept contributed by my former colleague, Cynthia Wong)

[1] Skinner, B.F., Century Psychology Series: Reflections on Behaviorism and Society, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1978, pages 34, 35.

[2] Ibid


Paul Conrad serves as the Manager of the BYU Financial Fitness Center and teaches Family Finance as an adjunct instructor at the BYU Salt Lake Center.