11/19/2012 07:31 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

Thanksgiving Break: Have the Money Talk Before Doorbusters Begin


College students think of Thanksgiving as a well-deserved break from academic stress and impending project due dates. But, their focus should be on their textbooks and their pocketbooks.

Parents can ease end of semester pressures by offering to help their student assess their financial situation, including making sure they have enough funds to make it through the end of this semester and the full academic year.

We all know that spending money is a lot easier than pinching pennies, so you may want to share some of your own strategies for staying on track financially. They are more likely to use your suggestions if they feel you're not just telling them what to do, but talking with them adult-to-adult and sharing your own challenges and vulnerabilities.

Here are suggestions for recharging their financial peace of mind:

Have them check their bank account balance and recent statements. It is important to know where they stand and how they have been spending their money. Most banks have online and mobile features that allow students to check balances and review their spending easily. These tools replace age-old check registers. Review spending over the last month or so, and have them identify purchases that may be categorized as wants rather than needs. The major budget buster among most college students is eating out instead of taking full advantage of meal plans or cooking for themselves. If the meal plan they are on is not working out, perhaps a change is in order for next semester. Feeling really ambitious? Challenge them to identify ways to reduce their spending by 10 percent, and consider offering a "cash back" incentive of one or two percent.

Check bill payments. If they have a credit card and/or recurring obligations such as a cell phone or car loan, ask if they have been paying their expenses on time. Explain the importance of keeping current on these bills and how delinquency will negatively affect their credit score. Not sure yourself? Check out this handy brochure.

If they have racked up credit card balances they are unable to pay off each month, it is really important to put those cards "on ice" and make a plan for paying them down. Going forward, strongly encourage them to use a debit card, checks or cash to make purchases.

Start preparing for next semester. It's never too early to start making plans for next semester. First, have them check for any outstanding account balances with their college such as parking tickets, lab charges or late fees. Review their financial aid package to make sure that it, combined with what you and your student had planned to contribute, is enough to cover all costs. If they will be receiving a financial aid refund for books, supplies or other expenses, use this calculator to budget these funds to last throughout the semester. Also, you may want to suggest that they apply for a temporary job over winter break to build a cash reserve for unexpected emergencies.

Don't be quick to bail them out. If funds are low, offer to take them to a discount warehouse to stock up on some food items such a granola bars, peanut butter and cereal which will help them get through the remaining weeks of classes and final exams. Looking ahead to the holidays, remove pressure to buy expensive gifts. Giving the gift of time to someone, for example, is a great alternative and often appreciated more than material items. Remember that going to college is a learning experience and everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is that they understand that they can come to you for help before it's too late.

Most importantly, remind them that college is a time to focus on getting their degree, which is the first step to securing a bright financial future.