How to tell teens about family finances


(HADLEY HOOPER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 30, 2013

Q I am a single mom of two children in their late teens. I recently watched my dear friend fall apart when her husband died unexpectedly and then I saw her family almost go under finan­cially. Now I wonder if and when I should talk to my own kids about my savings, my IRAs and my life insurance in case we ever have some kind of terrible family emergency. ¶ Somehow, money is a challenging topic for me, and now I don’t know whether I should tell my teenagers about my finances — and possibly scare them witless — or just do my yoga, take my vitamins and keep my mouth shut.

A Before you say anything, you need to think a little differently. It isn’t “my finances;” it’s “our finances.”

Once you have children, any money you make goes into the family pie and that pie belongs to all of you. And because it belongs to all of you, your children have the right to know approximately how much money you make unless, of course, you make so much money — or so little money — that you don’t think they can handle that information too well.

Your children should also know whether you have any property besides the house that you live in and the car that you drive, and whether you own any stocks. Even if you don’t own any stocks, you can teach your children about the market by having the whole family read the business pages together for a week or two and then by each of you pretending to buy a stock that looks promising. Write down the price of each stock on the day that you bought it and every day thereafter for a couple of weeks so you’ll know whose stock has risen the most. The winner then gets to tell the family what stock to buy (or pretend to buy). As you watch it rise and fall and, with luck, rise again, your teens will learn how the stock market works.

This exercise will help your children understand the power of money, but it won’t make them understand the uses of money unless you have them put 10 percent of their allowance into the family’s poor box every week — for those who have less than they do — and to save another 10 percent as their cushion when times get tough.

Pride is another good teacher, and your teens will be full of it when they open their own savings and checking accounts and learn how to balance their checkbooks and pay a few bills online before they go to college.

You also should tell your teens how much life insurance you have and how it works. Your teens should know that they’ll be buying their own insurance one day, and that the right policy will let them draw out some of the money if they get in a jam or need money to pay toward a big tuition bill or the birth of a baby or the down payment on a house.

It may seem like you’ll be giving your teens way too much financial information, but this is what they will need if you die before they do. With this possibility in mind, you should also tell your children the names of your lawyer and your insurance agent and where you keep your will and any other important papers. These papers should include your living will, in case you can’t make critical medical decisions yourself, and, if you decide to have one, a broader order called the DNR ( Do Not Resuscitate), which your doctor will sign after consulting with you. The other papers include your health-care power of attorney with the name of someone who will make medical decisions for you and a durable power of attorney, so they’ll know who should handle your financial affairs.

This is a difficult thing to talk about, and none of this will be easy to explain to your teens, even though they’re almost grown, but it’s unfair to keep them in the dark. Too little information can be much harder on children than too much of it. It would even be good to tuck your funeral instructions in with your papers, although it will probably be years before you’ll need — or want — to talk about them.

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