The first call for financial help came three weeks into our daughter’s first semester at university. She’d lost her meal card on a Friday night and the office was closed until Monday. No card equalled no food.

Few parents of first-year students will get to the holidays without a supplicating call, text or email. Weekend gatherings, lonely hours racking up the cellphone minutes and all the grab ’n goes en route to classes put a dent in the student budget.

The semester has started but it isn’t too late to put a plan in place to keep students on track financially. You don’t want to be over involved or, God forbid, interfering, and you do want your children to learn from their mistakes. But, especially for students without a track record handling money, the surest route to independence is by placing a gentle financial hand on their shoulders.

Financial independence developed now will pay off with a better ability to handle the inevitable education debt upon graduation.

As many as 70 per cent of students starting first year in 2009 will have student loan debt upon graduation and those pursuing four-year programs will average $25,000 or more — and that doesn’t include student lines of credit or money borrowed by parents. So it only makes sense to start students off with some financial dollars and sense.

If you haven’t done so already, make sure there are two bank accounts in place with lump sums being deposited in the savings account and an automatic twice monthly transfer into chequing for living expenses.

I recommend the accounts be joint with a parent with both having online access. Aside from just keeping an eye on things for the first year, a joint account makes deposits and transfers much easier.

Students should pay their own cellphone bills, even if the money is coming from mom and dad. There’s nothing like seeing and paying for the cost of going over minutes to rein in the chat.

There will be calls for financial help and a bailout now and then is OK. Just be prepared to draw the line if the outstretched hand becomes a permanent fixture.

Alison’s Money Rule:

• Ease college and university students into independence by placing a gentle financial hand on their shoulders.

– Alison Griffiths is a financial journalist, author and host of Maxed Out on the W Network. Write to her at alison@alisongriffiths.ca.