Much of the focus of financial literacy is on younger kids, and rightly so. "Having the sex talk after they're having sex does very little good," said Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner and founder of the Garrett Planning Network, a group of fee-only financial advisors. The same holds true with finances: College debt, credit cards, income tax returns and other topics should be broached well before the need arises to gain firsthand experience with them.
But talking to your kids about money shouldn't stop once they've flown the nest.
"We don't have financial literacy in the schools, so the parents are going to be one of the most important sources of information that children will have," said Annamaria Lusardi, professor at the George Washington University School of Business. "We don't talk about money, and we should."
Some topics may just need a refresher, but others might be broached for the first time as they reach adulthood.
Once your children are legal adults, you're often as good as strangers when it comes to making health and financial decisions on their behalf, Lori Epstein, vice president for advanced markets and financial planning at MetLife, told attendees at a Financial Planning Association conference last month. "Make sure you have the right documents to protect them," she said, and talk about why they're important.
Notably, a young, unmarried adult should sign a health-care proxy giving a parent or another trusted adult the right to make health-care decisions on his or her behalf if incapacitated, Epstein said. Without one of these documents, doctors and hospitals fall back on the adult patient's right to medical privacy. It may require a court order for parents to gain access to medical information or be consulted on care—even if the adult patient in question is an 18-year-old college student who's still a dependent on the parents' tax return.
Proxies are easily changed down the line. In most cases, all it takes is a new signed proxy naming another agent.
Ideally, you've already laid substantial groundwork with conversations about budgeting and saving, but debt is a topic worth revisiting as new adults get their first hands-on experience with it, Lusardi said. Many young adults are first exposed to credit cards in college. At 22, even if they're not burdened with student loan debt (on average, $33,000), they may be borrowing to buy a new car or a first home. "We start our lives not just managing assets, but managing debt," she said.
Intervening now can provide an opportunity to help your kids keep their debt in check and make decisions that reduce rather than add to it. "It's a lot easier and quicker to be in trouble these days because you mismanage debt," she said. New adults may also need some help finding safer, less expensive ways to borrow. A 2012 survey from Think Finance, a financial technology and analytics company, found 22 percent of millennials earning $50,000 or more per year had used a payday loan or other emergency cash product; 37 percent had requested an advance on their next paycheck through their bank.
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Yours, not theirs. Most people wait until a critical juncture—a serious diagnosis, for example—to talk with their family about financial, housing and medical preferences and plans for their later years. And that's if they get around to talking about it at all, Tim Prosch, author of the AARP book "The Other Talk," told FPA attendees. "Take the initiative now while you can still lead the discussion," he said.
Having that talk early educates and empowers adult children, he said. They're not left guessing what you might want or worrying about whether you're prepared financially for a medical emergency. Start collecting a binder of vital documents (including your will, health care proxy, etc.) and tell your kids where they can find it if needed.
It can't hurt, while talking, to ask adult children about their own preferences, Garrett said. They may not have prepared a will—especially if they're unmarried or just starting out. But that doesn't mean they haven't thought about who might want certain valuable or sentimental item, she said.
An extra nudge now, when your child is in his or her 20s, could help ensure a more secure financial future. "We start too late to think about retirement, to save for it," Lusardi said. "If they start now, it's going to be that much easier."
Parents should encourage their kids to set aside at least enough to get the full match offered by their employer, she said. Even a small amount of funds set aside will grow substantially over a career of 40 or more years.