With college students starting to leaving home for the first time, financial experts say keeping a lid on costs begins with a conversation — and the approach is critical.

T his month, as thousands of college students start leaving home for the first time, financial experts say keeping a lid on costs begins with a conversation.

And the approach is critical.

“It’s a conversation, not a lecture,” said Geoff Howard, a financial consultant with the Charles Schwab office in Roseville, Calif. Make it collaborative but focus on key points, he suggests. Among them:

• Talk about needs versus wants: Needs are textbooks, tuition. Wants are snowboarding trips and the newest iPhone.

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• Decide who pays for what. It’s personal to every family, but everyone should be clear so there are no bank-account surprises midyear.

• Drill down to specifics on expenses. Use a budget worksheet; many universities offer them online through their financial-aid office, or go to websites such as bankrate.com/”>www.bankrate.com or cashcourse.org.

“It’s an eye-opener and, if done right, can be the first real conversation parents have with their children about money,” said Howard. “It’s a chance to start good habits right now.”

For any college-bound student, here are other money matters to consider:

File it away

Creating a financial-filing system is a must. Websites like Mint.com let you create a budget and a financial record-keeping system. Or simply label a series of file folders: bank account, ATM receipts, bills, cellphone contract, health care.

When you need the paperwork, it’s not buried under a pile of books or gym socks.

Credit cards

Maybe: College students and credit cards have long been a hot topic. Eager to clamp down on aggressive soliciting by credit-card companies on college campuses, Congress this year banned anyone under 21 from obtaining a credit card, unless there’s a co-signer or the student can show his or her ability to make monthly payments.

If you’re willing to co-sign and you feel your student is responsible, it can be a great way to launch their credit history while they’re still under your financial wing. And a credit card can be a lifesaver in an emergency — the unexpected-flight-home type, not the late-night-pizza-run kind.

But a warning: If you co-sign and your adorable teen racks up too many overdrafts or late payments, your credit history can be dinged. And vice versa: Your bad habits could hurt your child’s credit history.

Another option: prepaid, reloadable cards. They’re like a credit card, but you can’t overdraft or spend beyond your limit. Companies like American Express, Visa and MasterCard offer them. Compare several to check fees or restrictions, such as out-of-network ATM withdrawals.

Just-in-case documents

It’s the scenario no parent wants to envision, but your son or daughter may want to consider authorizing someone to make financial and health-care decisions on their behalf, in the event of an accident or hospitalization.

For students 18 and older, Sacramento estate-planning attorney Trudy Nearn recommends three documents: a financial power of attorney, an Advance Healthcare Directive and the medical-records release form known as HIPAA. The health-care directive states who can make medical decisions on your behalf; the HIPAA form says your medical records can be shared with whomever you designate.

The financial power of attorney would give a parent or other designee permission to make or postpone loan payments, talk with lenders and landlords or access bank accounts, if a student is incapacitated.

“It’s just peace of mind for parents that they will be able to help their kids and be involved if something happens,” said Nearn.

In most cases, she said, students designate a parent, but siblings, grandparents and family friends also can be named.

Leaving home for college is a life-changing event for kids and their parents. Doing a little financial prep can be healthy for everyone.

“You love your kids, and while they’re at college, you want to minimize their stress and distraction like a late bill or a bounced check,” said Schwab’s Howard. “Those are what will keep kids from focusing on their academic and their personal development, which is what college is all about.”