According to financial expert Ron Lieber, the author of The Opposite of Spoiled, "you can't just unload all the information at once—kids need time to digest and ask questions." Here is Lieber's wise advice on revealing the right details at the right time, in four separate conversations over as many years.

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Illustration: college costs
Credit: Studio Muti

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Illustration: college costs
Credit: Studio Muti

1 The Lay-Your-Cards-on-the-Table Conversation

“The summer before ninth grade, talk about what college, both state and private, is going to cost. And then—brace yourself—disclose your finances as they relate to college. Explain what you’ve saved and what you’re willing or able to spend. Tell the truth. Kids should know what it takes to provide the lifestyle they enjoy, so they can make informed choices about school and a career that will allow them to replicate that lifestyle, or exceed it, or live smaller—whatever their goal is. This is also a good time to explain the impact of grades on merit-based financial aid. You don’t want to put insane pressure on your kids, but you want them to know early on that good grades can lead to more merit aid and more college options. Be honest about money constraints. If kids are already thinking about expensive colleges, they’ll understand that they can work to try to help make that happen. You want to tell them when they still have four summers to earn money.”

2 The Here’s-How-the-System-Works Conversation

“After freshman year, explain that some colleges give aid based on need and some offer aid based on merit. Be wary of declaring all pricey schools off-limits, because it’s possible that a kid with really good grades could get a big merit-aid package at a second- or third-tier school. Also, you might get more need-based aid than you expect.”

3 The Borrowing Conversation

“The summer before junior year, you’ll have a better sense of where you are financially. Share any updates. Now is the time to talk about student loans. The script goes something like this: ‘We want you to know that one way families pay for school is by borrowing. We may borrow some, and the school may ask you to borrow as well. We don’t know how much it will be, and we’ll work together to figure that out. Some of the debt will be yours, and you’ll be responsible for tracking it and paying it back on time.’ Hopefully you’ve given your kids some exposure to your mortgage or other debts, so they know that a reasonable amount of debt doesn’t have to feel like an enormous burden.”

4 The Let’s-Do-This Conversation

“The summer before senior year is the time to make actual decisions about where to apply. Divide the schools you’re talking about into those you can afford, the 50-50s, and the long shots. Update if any of your numbers—income, savings—have changed. Fill out the financial-aid forms. Some people think they won’t qualify, so they don’t bother. I say, ‘Take a shot.’ You can’t tell which school will need a goalie or a flute player and will therefore offer more financial aid to get one.”