As parents, we want to shield our children from so many of the harsh realities of the adult world. Sometimes we try to “protect” our kids from other facts, too, even benign ones. Many parents resist or avoid telling their children what they earn or how much money they have saved for college.
Some parents feel uncomfortable revealing this information. Perhaps they fear they might be judged or questioned. Maybe they wish they had tucked away more. If teens have their sights set on an expensive college, their parents may be reluctant to explain that a school is financially out of reach.
I understand all those reasons not to discuss money. But I also see the value of starting this conversation so our kids so they are better equipped to make smart decisions about their dollars—and yours. That’s true no matter how large your nest egg is.
When our oldest child was beginning her college search, my husband and I sat down with her and showed her the 529 college savings account we’d been growing since she was a little girl. The balance looked like a fortune to her. Then we reviewed the cost of four years of college tuition, room and board. Suddenly, that amount didn’t seem quite so huge.
We explained that if she thought she might want to attend graduate school, she could find ways to stretch the money we’d saved. Perhaps she’d want to attend community college or summer school to pick up affordable college credits, for example. Or she could attend a Bay Area college and live at home.
Putting our daughter in the driver’s seat not only empowered her to make a prudent decision but also opened the door for us to talk more openly about career and life choices. We discussed how she’d feel about graduating with student debt or working part-time to fund a more expensive college choice. These questions would have been difficult to broach honestly if we’d been secretive about our college budget.
Some parents go a step further, revealing their salaries and household budgets to their children. A fascinating New York Times article describes a father who cashed his paycheck and dumped wads of cash on the table. As his six children watched, he divvied the dollars into piles for taxes, the mortgage payment, charity, food and other expenses … until very little was left.
The father, Scott Parker, said he acted to educate his family—and perhaps to fix an omission in his childhood. “I just remember distinctly that I never knew [about household finances] myself growing up, and I felt it was a big disadvantage,” he told The Times.
Raising your children to become fiscally responsible adults will, of course, take more than a one-time reveal of your salary or your college savings. It’s a lifelong process that starts as soon as they begin to understand what money is and how your family spends it and saves it.
When you encourage openness about finances, you set the stage for meaningful discussions and, ultimately, thoughtful decisions about how to make very dollar count.
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