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I entered college as a first-generation college student from a low income background with no idea of how to be a good steward of money.

Growing up, I was taught to hold onto money and hide it away for as long as possible or to spend my money all at once. This catapulted me into a cycle where I either had a lot of money or very little money. The recurring theme in my college experience was believing that I never had enough money. This phenomenon is known as the scarcity mindset and was first described by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey defined it as a mentality that refers to individuals who are conditioned to be in competition with one another, hoard resources, and hide money.

The scarcity mindset was perpetuated in me as I subconsciously embraced the identity of a poor college student. I began to believe that I was not worthy of building a good relationship with money until I had a college degree with a good-paying job. 15 years and 3 college degrees later, I am still working to heal my relationship with money. However, you and your student can create a new reality with money much sooner than I did. What’s next? Consider how your student will learn to increase their financial literacy as part of their college-going experience.

Here are actionable steps from my experience as a college administrator and as a first-generation college student from a low-income background that can help your student build their own relationship with money:

  • Start early: Involve your student in financial conversations early on in the college journey. It is important for them to understand financial policies and procedures and for them to gradually play a leading role in their own financial journey throughout college. Your student should play an active role in gathering financial documents requested by their college and they should partner with you to complete their annual Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Utilize campus resources: Encourage your student to connect to financial resources once they get to college. There will be several opportunities for your student to earn money, apply for scholarships, and participate in paid summer internships/research programs. Having regular check-ins with the financial aid and student services offices will be an important habit to establish a good understanding of how student fees are calculated and how student bills work on a regular basis. Having financial holds on your account can hinder your student from enrolling in classes which will have an impact on academic progress which is what you will want to avoid especially towards senior year.
  • Open discussions: As your student progresses throughout college, financial situations may change. Have open conversations with your student about the rising cost of college, options for paying for college, and new government policies impacting college finances. Make well-informed decisions together. Not talking about money doesn’t mean that money doesn’t exist. Having an open dialogue with your student about how money works will allow them to establish a healthy relationship with money so that they can continue to grow far beyond college graduation day.

You are likely considering all of the ways you can empower your student to shape their college experiences in the years ahead. You are already building your 529 account as a foundation for your student’s future and now you have actionable steps to ensure that your student has their mind on their money and their money on their mind.


Born in the San Gabriel Valley but raised in Moreno Valley, CA, Dr. Lisa Caldera is a first-generation college student from a low-income family background. She became the first person in her family to earn a doctorate and dedicated her research to undocumented college student experiences. She serves as the Senior Associate Dean leading a team of case managers who oversee crisis response, support, and resources for all Stanford undergraduates.