Parents wear many hats with their children: chauffeur, cook, tutor, chief cuddler. What most of them don't do—despite their best intentions—is give their children financial smarts.
More than half of parents in a recent survey rated their teens' financial acumen as good or excellent, but 78 percent of the teens surveyed assessed their own money smarts as average or even poor. And while almost three-fourths of the parents in the survey said they had talked to their teens about managing money, more than half of the teens wanted to hear more.
"It seems kind of gauche to talk about money so upfront, but it's really important, said Joe Ridout, a spokesman for Consumer Action, one of the sponsors of the survey.
But how to make those lessons stick? Experts have a number of suggestions.
Learning the value of different coins and bills can start at a very young age. Young children can also start to distinguish between what they need and what they want: they need clothes to stay warm, but a brand new sparkly hair clip is another matter.
Parents can help young children understand these concepts through routine activities like grocery shopping, according to "Money as you grow," a group of online financial lessons that grew out of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability. "Talk about how your family decides what to buy and what to pass up. Which is more important, buying cookies or fresh fruit? Soda or milk?" the site suggests. Another idea: when your child is waiting for a turn somewhere, use it as an opportunity to point out that sometimes we have to wait (and save up) to buy something.
"At its core a lot of this is really about understanding choice, and understanding that you have unlimited wants and scarce resources to meet those wants. It's understanding how to make decisions that are the best for you. That's the stuff you can start out with right away in elementary school," said Christopher Caltabiano, vice president for domestic programs at the Council for Economic Education.
Ridout recommends using cash for at least some purchases, and that parents make sure children understand that credit cards and other cards actually involve an exchange. "It's important that children realize that it's not a magical piece of plastic" that brings nice things into the home, he said.
When children hit the preteen years, they can understand more complicated financial concepts and function more independently with money, even though they may not be learning about money in school.
That makes the early tweens a good time to start kids with an allowance that comes with responsibility for covering the cost of some of the things they want or need, some experts say.
Mary Hunt, the author of "Raising Financially Confident Kids" and the founder of Debt–Free Living, gave her own boys "salaries" when they started sixth grade. They were supposed to save 10 percent and allocate 10 percent for giving away, and then they could spend the rest–though they had a list of things they were responsible for, like gifts when they went to birthday parties.
The boys also had chores they were responsible for, and if they neglected them, they were given citations and fined. By the time they got to high school, the boys were receiving $350 a month and having to allocate it responsibly, Hunt said, adding that it was real household money, not a gift. Letting the boys buy certain things meant she did not have to buy them herself.
Children may make mistakes, and run out of money before the next "paycheck" arrives, Hunt said, but it is good for them to learn that lesson while they are young and living with their parents.
"The bottom line is the only way to teach children about money is to allow them to experience it," Hunt said. "Some children have to be forced in a parenting kind of way to make their own independent financial decisions and then have to live with either the consequences or the rewards."
Hunt herself got a reward as well. By the time her children finished high school, they were managing their own checkbooks and ready, at least intellectually, for financial independence.
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Teenagers are able to handle complicated financial concepts and take real financial responsibility, but many also face peer pressure about spending on social activities, and pressure to sort out major money issues like paying for college.
If they have been learning responsible saving and budgeting habits along the way, as well as learning about financial institutions and financial products, they will have much of the foundation they will need at this age, but parents can still help teens with money smarts.
Modeling good financial behavior is key, experts say. Modeling is important at any age; but teens, who are wired to notice inauthenticity, are bound to notice when parents don't live by the financial maxims they hand out. Teens may act like they have no interest in what parents are doing or saying, but Hunt pointed out that "kids don't have to respond to be listening."
The immediacy of college may also make teens more receptive to parental lessons about bank accounts, savings, budgets, and the like. It's one thing for a teen to try and absorb the pros and cons of different hypothetical checking accounts. It's quite another for them to sort out the offerings available in their future college town. Similarly, a teen who lands a summer job or works after school will be motivated to figure out what to do with the money and may find learning about investing more appealing.
Sorting out the best ways to pay for college is complicated even for financial whizzes, and it's a good idea, experts say, for parents and teens to work on the problem together. Some parents need or want their children to "get more invested in their education," as Ridout said, and pay some of the cost, while others want to minimize students' financial responsibility so they can focus on their academic work. Either way, teens need to understand how much a college education costs and the savings and hard work required to cover it.
A variety of online resources exist to help parents teach their children about money. In addition to the lessons from the President's Advisory Council, Consumer Action publishes suggestions via the "Teens and Money" section of its website. Northwestern Mutual has two websites with financial education material for kids and teens, themint.org and themintgrad.org. And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers advice on contending with the cost of college.
Some experts argue that between the high cost of college and the constant social and advertising pressure to spend, financial literacy has never been more important, even for young children. "The decisions aren't always easy," said the Council for Economic Education's Caltabiano. "But if you have the tools to weigh the costs and the benefits, you have a better chance of making the decisions that are right for you."