Offering financial support for their children's post-secondary education is a fixed obligation for many clients. But not all parents have the luxury of time or the financial resources to build up a substantial education fund without cutting into their retirement plans.

In some cases, no amount of planning will make a fully subsidized education possible, says Kim Gaxiola, financial advisor and founder of Tech Girl Financial in Morgan Hill, Calif. "I can print out as many projections as I want to," she says. "But for many clients, it's not within their budget."

Instead, when clients come to Gaxiola for advice on how to finance their child's university or college education, she often engages them in a discussion on how to avoid endangering their own retirement to cover an increasingly expensive degree.

Those conversations often involve encouraging clients to be upfront with their children about their financial circumstances and what they can afford.

Gaxiola suggests the following ways you can help your clients approach planning for their children's post-secondary education:

> Offer a blueprint
Gaxiola developed a worksheet that outlines all the costs associated with earning a degree. She developed the tool as an antidote to the common assumption that parents should be solely responsible for financing their children's education.

She offers this tool through her website as a template that lays out an agreement between parents and their child on the obligations of both parties. For example, the worksheet can help clients create a budget that shows how much financial support they can extend, under certain conditions.

The worksheet acts as a starting point in Gaxiola's discussions with clients about saving for college. "Clients feel so much better coming up with a solution than just hoping [it will work out]," she says.

> Define the limits
Parents often bank on the hope that their children will eventually assume some of the costs for their education, Gaxiola says. But unless boundaries are set as the children head into adulthood, she adds, they may feel that unconditional financial support is a given.

So, advise clients to determine the amount they can reasonably afford to cover, Gaxiola says. That can lead to more realistic discussions relating to issues such as selecting schools — making that decision based on practical rather than on superficial grounds, such as where their friends are going. 

You also can recommend that clients set a limit of four years for their child to complete his or her bachelor's degree. "Get [the child] to take some ownership of the sticker price," Gaxiola says.

> Create incentives
One way parents can encourage their children to stay on top of their education is to offer rewards. For example, Gaxiola suggests, give children incentives to complete their degree within the specified time frame.

For example, suggest that your clients reward their children with a trip or some seed money to pursue their passion — if they can stick to the agreement you made.

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