How Not to Talk to Your Adult Child About Money
7 hot-button topics that could lead to conflict if you're not careful
In hindsight, I realize I never should have said it. Especially on Facebook, where I’m “friends” with my kids, their cousins, their second cousins and some of their friends. My transgression: I made a passing comment about how young people today seem to think weekend partying means racking up huge bar tabs, not BYOB-ing at a friend’s apartment.
My kids saw it and called me — then they called me on the carpet. They felt judged. I apologized and promptly deleted the post.
And yet it’s true: A lot of our grown-up children have a totally different attitude toward money than we did at their age (and even now). When I was a flat-broke twentysomething, come Saturday night we’d all chip in to buy some cheap wine. We’d drink out of jelly glasses and eat pizza in front of the TV. Bars and clubs were beyond our means.
Sometimes our kids make us crazy with their $50 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Papes and blasé attitudes about credit card debt. But telling them what we think is a perfect way to start a fight.
(MORE: The 6 Things You Shouldn't Say to Your Adult Child)
So what are concerned parents supposed to do: speak up and risk an argument or keep our mouths shut and watch the potential train wreck?
The answer is both, according to the experts. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, research professor at Clark University and author of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adults, believes money issues are the No. 1 conflict young adults have with their parents. Plus, he adds, they probably won’t listen anyway.
On top of that, Arnett stresses, it’s not our place to make decisions for them. Nevertheless, he advocates initiating conversations with your kids about finances early on, preferably before they leave for college.
If you’ve missed that “pre-college” moment — or if you feel the discussion needs repeating — just do it now, says Jeffrey Gitterman, financial coach and author of Beyond Success: Redefining the Meaning of Prosperity. He believes it’s crucial for the baby boom generation to step in to inform and model behavior for a generation that at times seems not to get it.
7 Quips That Should Never Pass Your Lips
When it comes time for the talk, we need to mind our manner and our words. Arnett’s first comment: However tempting sarcasm may be, remember, it will not lead to anything useful. Second, when adult children seem to be doing well — staying out of debt, meeting all their expenses — there's no reason to say something just because their style differs from yours. If you suspect your kids are heading for trouble, however, here’s some help for the seven hot-button topics that commonly come up between parents and their adult children.
1. Lifestyle Habits
Includes Frequent restaurant dining, gourmet food, expensive wine and spirits; high-end kitchen appliances; the latest or excessive (to your mind) consumer technology; luxury cars
Exception They should have well-made shoes that fit, since podiatric health affects the whole body and eat good-quality food. And a good mattress and a (low-cost) gym memberships are good investments in their bodies.
Don’t say “You spent more on that bottle of single malt scotch than some third-world farmers earn in a year.”
Conversation starter “It’s great that you appreciate the finer things in life, but is it really worth going into debt for so many luxuries? Why not make a list of things you need and prioritize a list of wants?”
Words of wisdom Keep your advice general. Don’t focus on a particular item you think is over-the-top and that your adult child doesn’t need, Arnett says. That will get the conversation off topic.
Includes Living arrangements (e.g., roommates or not; a studio vs. a two-bedroom); expensive neighborhoods, upscale furnishings; weekly maid service.
Exception Anything that involves safety — like moving in with strangers or into dangerous neighborhoods — warrants an immediate and frank discussion.
Don’t say “Aren’t we fancy! A Sub-zero refrigerator and roof deck when you owe $80,000 in student loans.”
Conversation starter “What are your housing priorities and how do you think you could get the most bang for your buck?”
Words of wisdom The formula that we followed 30 years ago — housing costs should equal 25 percent of your salary — doesn’t apply in many of today’s real estate markets, Gitterman says. Encourage your child to work out all her other essential expenses and realistically assess how much she can afford for an apartment and act accordingly.
3. Savings and Investments
Includes Not saving money (or opening an IRA or contributing to company 401k; investing in something risky, like a friend’s documentary; racking up credit card debt.
Exception Young adults are generally well aware that student loans are eating their budgets. Unless your children are missing payments, give this sensitive issue a pass.
Don’t say “I know, I know. Your friend is the next Steve Jobs and his startup idea is going to make both of you millionaires.”
Conversation starter “When you begin saving young, your investments have so much time to grow.” Then show them a calculation of compounded interest over the next 35 years.
Words of wisdom Gitterman points out that young people value their social networks. Investing in friends’ projects is a new normal and, as parents, we may need to accept this. But there’s a difference between a $25 Kickstarter contribution and going “all in.”
4. Work Choices
Includes Quitting a job they don’t like before starting to look for a new one; accepting an unpaid internship when they can’t support themselves.
Exception Wanting to leave a job that’s physically or emotionally dangerous.
Don’t say “It doesn’t matter whether you like your job. You need a paycheck.”
Conversation starter “I know you want to be independent and support yourself. Do you have a plan that’s going to get you to the career you want and make you self-sufficient?”
Words of wisdom According to the Department of Labor, people hold an average of seven jobs before they turn 26. Of course, that includes summer and part-time jobs, but the point is, there’s a lot more employment mobility now than when we were young. (And compare that with our parents’ generation, where people often spent a lifetime at one company.) On the other hand, our kids have to recognize that they can’t expect us to pick up the bills. That unpaid internship may sound great — and for some, it might be a smart move that leads directly to a paying job or expands their skill set in a way that can help them land a paid position. But they need to be realistic about whether they can actually afford it.
5. The Bank of Mom & Dad
Includes Remaining on the parents’ wireless family plan once they're earning an income; expecting that dinner out (with you or another relative) means someone else always pays; coming home and “shopping” in your refrigerator or borrowing your car and not refilling the gas tank.
Exception Adult children may need help in an emergency, such as paying a vet bill. You can work out arrangements so you get paid back.
Don’t say “Our names are not Bill and Melinda.”
Conversation starter “Let’s have a frank discussion about how much money we can afford to give you and what financial responsibilities we think you should be shouldering.”
Words of wisdom Gitterman says, “If your grandfathered-in cellphone plan is really saving your adult children money, ask that they at least contribute toward your plan.” Helping them cut costs when it doesn’t cost you much is fine, but they should pay their share.
6. Excessive Frugality
Includes Taking a mattress or furniture off the street; not buying even token holiday gifts; not having health insurance.
Exception Thrift-shop finds can be great, but remind your child that all purchases of used clothing should always be washed or dry-cleaned before wearing and that hand-me-down furniture must be inspected carefully for bedbugs. Safer bet: Avoid secondhand furniture altogether.
Don’t say “Scrooge,” “cheap,” “tightwad,” “skinflint.”
Conversation starter “It's good to think about sustainability, but it’s a fine line that separates being prudent from depriving yourself of what what you need and can afford There are many shopping sites that offer bargains.”
Words of wisdom For some people, excessive frugality is a phase they’ll outgrow. For others, it’s a values-driven life choice. And yet it can also be a psychological disorder. If your child falls into the last category, find a gentle way to suggest counseling. Otherwise, you need to look away. If he won’t buy something you truly feel he needs, then you know what to give him for his birthday.
7. Disregard for Credit
Includes Late payments on bills or rent; not being smart about bank fees, interest charges or balancing a checkbook.
Exception Credit scores — they’re complicated even for us. So if your child is confused about them, cut him some slack.
Don’t say “I guess Lindsay Lohan is your financial role model.”
Conversation starter “Banks and credit cards charge hefty fees — and missing payments not only cost you money, but they can cancel out low-interest cards or wreck your credit rating. You might not care about this now, but you probably will one day. I’d love to have a conversation about this.”
Words of wisdom “It’s not as if we’re all financial models for our kids,” Arnett says, “but we can help them avoid mistakes we made." Avoiding potential pitfalls starts with being educated about the real cost of credit cards and paying off the bill every month. And when money's really tight, being disciplined enough to go on a “cash-only diet.”
Of course, even the most considerate wise counsel may fall on tin ears. In that event, Gitterman has another suggestion: Have your children talk to a third party, like a lawyer or financial adviser. And bear in mind something the Veterans Administration (which deals with many young adults) has learned: Skip the printed material and rely on videos.
Whatever you do, just don’t post your comments on your Facebook page.