How do I talk to my teenager about paying for college?

Need to have a financial heart-to-heart or hold a delicate money negotiation? In this weekly column, you’ll learn how to keep your relationships—and finances—healthy and happy by talking openly about money matters without bursting into tears—or breaking out in fisticuffs.

“If I can’t get my daughter to listen when I call her to dinner, how can I get her to talk about college loans?” a woman once asked me in despair. I hear you, Frazzled Mom of a Teenager. But this is one of those must-have conversations that will only get harder the longer you put it off.

Here’s why talking about this stuff is so important. A survey of parents and children from financial services firm T. Rowe Price last year found that most kids (62%) think their parents are going to pay for the whole shebang, no matter what college they go to. Yet most parents (65%) won’t be able to cover the full college bill. Talk about a disconnect!

The college money conversation needs to start earlier than you might think—ninth grade. Starting early means you’ll have time to plan together. You need to do a little homework first, though, about how much college tuition may cost and how much your family will be expected to pitch in after financial aid. For the nuts and bolts of how to do this, see “First Four Steps” on my Paying for College infographic, and Chapter 9 of my book Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not).

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to sit down with your kid. You can start off with something like, “Now that you’re in high school, I’ve been thinking about you going off to college.” Then ask your kid if she has any thoughts. No matter what reply you get—and teens are notoriously tight-lipped with their parents—it’s a good sign if she has given this any thought at all. Be encouraging and open, even if your B-average son or daughter is planning to get into Harvard early decision.

After you’ve talked generally about your higher ed dreams, it’s time to get into specifics. “I’ve been looking into how much I/we can set aside to pay for college. Now that you’re old enough, it’s time to share this with you.” Odds are, this will get your kid’s attention. You don’t have to tell her everything—like, say, your salary. But if you have a college fund of some kind, make sure she knows, and assure her that you’re putting $X a month into it. (If you don’t have a college savings account, tell her you’re going to open one pronto—and then do it. Check out your state’s 529 plan.) If the family is going to have to take out loans, your kid should know that, too.

Maybe this sounds like the very kind of stuff you’ve tried to shield your kid from since she left preschool. But here’s the reality: In a few short years, all this info is going on the financial aid forms that both you and your kid will have to sign, so she will see it anyway. Better to make your kid a part of the process now.

What if your kid says, “Why can’t you pay for the whole thing?” If this makes you feel guilty, remember that survey: Most other parents are in the same boat. Explain that college is a huge investment. Most people don’t have the cash to pay for an entire house all at once. College tuition is similar in terms of the financial lift. That’s why it’s important to come up with a strategy that uses aid, loans, and the money that both of you have saved. (Be sure to point out that college is an investment that pays dividends. Over the course of her lifetime, her college diploma will earn her an average of $1 million more than someone who stopped at high school.)

Here’s your opening to ask, “Have you thought about how you plan to contribute to your college tuition?”

Maybe your kid already has some money contributed by relatives over the years socked away, which is great. Perhaps he’s already planning to find a part-time or summer job. If not, now’s the time to bring it up. To make sure work doesn’t undercut her GPA, keep it under 15 hours a week during the school year. Maybe your kid is planning to bankroll his degree on scholarships. Go get ’em! But he should know that a small fraction of scholarships cover all college costs. Finally, your kid should know that most students have to take out at least some loans, and that there’s a smart way to do that. (See my Paying for College infographic for a primer.)

Last year, an annual nationwide survey of incoming college freshman found that more than half the kids worried about how they would pay for college. You’ll have lots of other chances to talk about the details (and to do more research into your options) over the next couple years. But by starting this conversation early, you’ll take a huge step toward easing your kid’s anxiety and preparing for that first college tuition bill together.

Read more articles from the We Need To Talk series.