One of my clients told me the other day about a conversation she had recently with her teen. The conversation began as a typical mother-daughter talk about a purchase and had every chance of devolving into an equally typical argument. But suddenly, my client decided to take the conversation in a different direction—into the sort of conversation she would normally have with me, her financial advisor. She was surprised at the results. Most of us don't talk to our older children about money because we don't want to share worries and anxieties or because we've been trained to keep the information "private." But very few of us live without financial limits. What we do within those limitations—the planning, the discipline and the constant adjusting for unexpected costs and opportunities that crop up in our lives—these are exactly what a young person in our society needs to understand. Next time you get a chance to mentor a young person about finances, resist the urge to hide the realities that you've been managing (whether skillfully or not), and try sharing your own experiences:
Don't be afraid to share how much you make
We train ourselves to hide how much we make, and most of us have suffered at one time or another from our resulting ignorance of how others in our community are faring. Besides, you might not be impressed by your modest income, but the teen who counts out spending cash one bag of chips at a time probably is. Enjoy the rare moment of respect when you tell them that you make more than a three-figure salary.
Show them the real costs of life
You build your choices around some pretty heft and inescapable costs—housing, health care, transportation, groceries and taxes just to get started. When you share these figures with a teen, you are often giving them their first real look at the baseline for getting by as an adult in our society. This is also a good moment to reflect on how much you ask of yourself as a breadwinner.
Have a dialogue about the choices
Our choices are where we become who we are. Every day we decide what is important to us: because that expense makes us healthier or saves us time we badly need elsewhere, because we are afraid of what might happen, because we believe in something outside ourselves. We make financial choices because we dream of changing our lives some day or just because that little expense makes us happier. None of these choices are things to be ashamed of, even when we aren't completely sure those choices are the right ones.
And this, I think, gets at the root of why we are so reluctant to talk to our teens about these things. As a society, we have been floundering along under the assumption that we should be better at managing our money than we are. Money has a way of squirming its way into every worry and challenge we face in life. And yet, the vast majority of us somehow find a way to get through. We probably all need to give ourselves a bit of break. We definitely all need to talk about it more—not just for our teens' sake, but as a reminder that every day, no matter how many unexpected obstacles crop up, we are there figuring out a way to make things work all over again.