Forget the turkey and stuffing. There's another weighty reason for families to gather around the table this month – it’s time to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. (It became available Oct. 1, for students attending school in academic year 2018-2019).

FAFSA’s unveiling also means it’s time for parents to conduct sober conversations about education funding.

Let’s start with a basic fact: College education is worthwhile. College graduates earn more than twice as much and have lower unemployment rates than those who stop their education after high school. That said, assuming a massive debt load for a degree could rob both parents and kids of future financial opportunities. Before you start the college planning and FAFSA process, you need to have honest and sober conversations that take into account the financial realities of the entire family.

“I have to make sure my kid gets a college degree, and I don’t want him/her to be burdened by student loans,” is the perennial parental lament. But before putting money toward your kid’s education, make sure you have covered The Big Three:

(1) Paying down consumer debt;

(2) Establishing an emergency reserve fund; and

(3) Funding retirement.

If any one of these items is outstanding, put education funding on the back burner.

There is no reason that you can’t help your children earn a degree without mounds of debt. It may require a little creativity – perhaps attending a community college, combined with a state school is the best way to earn that undergraduate education.

However, raiding your retirement account – or shortchanging your current retirement plan contributions or going into too much debt – to allow your child to attend ANY school she wants should not be an option. In an effort to provide the golden opportunity of college, many parents create a future burden for their kids. After all, if you are struggling to meet your retirement needs, your children will likely be on the hook for you.

If that’s not enough to get your attention, consider this: Older Americans are the fastest growing segment of student loan borrowers, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report released this year. From 2005 to 2015, the number of Americans age 60 or older with one or more student loans quadrupled from about 700,000 to 2.8 million, and average debt load owed by an older borrower roughly doubled from $12,000 to $23,500. About three in four older borrowers used the loans to finance children’s or grandchildren’s college educations.

Avoid taking on an obligation that may prove your undoing. Here are the basic sources available to fund higher education, according to the Common Application, a not-for-profit organization of more than 700 colleges and universities around the world.

  • Federal Government: The Department of Education awards about $150 billion a year to more than 15 million students. Funding for the most common programs is determined by the FAFSA, but there are other programs, like aid for military veterans. Here’s a page to start.
  • State Government: Your home state offers various types of financial aid. You might be eligible, even if you’re not eligible for federal aid.
  • Colleges and Universities: Many colleges and universities provide financial aid and scholarships from their own funds. There may be opportunities for a particular field of study, so check with the institutions where your child has been accepted.
  • Financial Aid: This is where the FAFSA comes into play. According to NextGenVest, a company that helps students manage the college selection and financial aid process, “approximately $2.7 billion is left unclaimed in federal aid by students who don’t fill out the FAFSA.” The FAFSA determines whether your student is eligible for programs like Pell Grants and Stafford Loans.
  • Scholarships: Private funders award scholarships in recognition of academic performance, athletic excellence, a commitment to community service, or other unique talents or qualities.
  • Savings: 529 plans, Coverdell Education Savings accounts, UTMA/UGMA, savings bonds and investment accounts.

A CFP® professional can help you decide which options are best for your family – and keep the college funding vampire from sucking your own savings away.