College is meant to be a learning experience. For some, it’s the first time they’re leaving the nest for an extended period of time. Despite how often your kids may have insisted they’re adults over the past few years, most quickly realize there are many things they don’t really know how to do. You could spend your time trying to explain how to do these things over the phone, or you could make sure they know how to handle “adulting” before they head out on their own. This summer, I received my undergraduate degree, and despite the four years and several thousand dollars I’ve spent attaining a higher education, there are many unavoidable tasks that are still new to me and even to this day I find myself calling my parents for guidance over small matters.
Taxes: No one really likes doing them, but most students who work part time have income tax withheld from their pay. That means when February rolls around, it’s in their best interest to fill out a 1040 and cash in that tax refund. This may seem simple to a seasoned tax filer, but to someone who has never seen these forms before, the task can seem daunting. They may be filling most lines with zeros, but take some time to explain the difference between deductions and withholdings.
Financial aid: Kudos to the parents who handle the financial aid of their new academic pioneer, but realize this is a commitment you’re making for the next few years. Yes, there are portions of the FAFSA that you’ll have to fill out either way, but your kids should know and understand the financial commitments being made in their name, especially when accepting loans.
Getting textbooks for free: Many schools have underutilized programs that can help you save money on school textbooks. In Illinois, there is i-Share, a network of college and university libraries throughout the state — from tiny private schools, community colleges up to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — that enables students to request books (and other materials) from any member library. If the item is available (sometimes they go missing), it is shipped to the student’s school and held for them to check out for no charge. Unless the book is in high demand, you can renew multiple times to span the entire quarter or semester. There are similar networks in other states and even some that could go farther afield. While there will be some books that you’ll have no choice but to purchase, by taking some time to research your school’s library and book sharing systems, over the course of a few years, this could save hundreds of dollars.
Cooking and meal prepping: Eating ramen noodles and Pop-Tarts every day is not sustainable. But when money is tight and nights spent studying are long, it’s easy to fall into an unhealthy eating pattern. Don’t assume your kids understand the basics of nutrition. Even if they do, remember that teenagers tend to think they’re superhuman. They might have a fast metabolism, but a healthy diet is linked to academic success, and the best way to make sure you’re eating right is to prepare ahead of time. Come up with a few meals that are quick, cost-efficient and nutritious, and teach them how to properly prepare quality food for the week.
Grocery shopping: When you go to the grocery store, it’s important to have a plan, a list and a budget. Make sure your kid goes into a store with an idea of what she is going to need and how much she can spend. Food waste is a huge issue in the U.S. and produce isn’t typically portioned properly for the single adult, teach your kids how much of something to buy at a time and what price points to look for.
Unclogging a drain: Not all college students move into dorms, and for those staying in their own apartments for the first time, they’ll soon realize that running your own home is no easy task — even if it’s only 900 square feet. Fixing minor things around the house comes with the responsibility of renting a place, and it’s unlikely that the landlord will come by to change light bulbs or unclog drains. Odds are, you’re the next person they’ll call, if not the first, and do you really want to be snaking out a drainpipe in a college kid’s bathroom? Best to teach that lesson at home.
Laundry: What is permanent press? Even if your kid does do his own laundry, does he know the difference between all the different washer and dryer settings? Does he check clothing labels and know which items are dry clean only? What needs to air dry? What should be separated in the wash? You’d be surprised by how many college students toss all their clothes — whites and darks — in the machine, hit “regular wash” and don’t opt for optimal wrinkle reduction.
Long-term budgeting: Don’t underestimate the power of an excel spreadsheet. Creating a daily, weekly and monthly budget plan can help your kid adjust to living on her own. Talk to her about how to save and plan for the future and be honest with her about your finances.
Emergency contact and insurance information: Hopefully nothing bad happens while they’re away from home, but in case something goes wrong, it’s best to be prepared. Make sure they have the proper paperwork and information they need. If you have insurance, get a copy of your card made for them; if not, look for state- or university-sponsored health care options. Most schools have the costs of a health clinic and insurance covered by various fees beyond tuition. Research the best places to go in nonemergency situations, local doctors and consider putting together a sheet with important information and emergency contacts.
College is what you make of it: Success doesn’t depend on which school they’re going to, how far away it is or how much it costs, because, in the end, you only get out of school what you put in. If they’re not sure they’re ready for it, don’t pressure them. Explore other options such as taking a gap year or taking advantage of community college courses. Remember, college is not for everyone, and going because everyone else is shouldn’t be the motivation.