Tough times mean tough talks with your kids about money

Tribune Media Services

Maybe your salary has been frozen, or you're in limbo awaiting word from your boss on whether your job will get whacked.

Or your college savings plan has taken a beating and you don't know how you'll come up with the money to cover the tuition gap.

A lot of families are under financial stress right now, and don't think your children haven't noticed. If yours are like mine, their antennae are raised over every bit of kitchen-table conversation about the family budget -- especially so close to the holidays.

Much of the mail I typically receive from readers at this time of year is about some of the more agreeable issues of raising money-savvy children: buying shares of stock as a gift, finding a charity to support, a board game or two such as Monopoly that is all about money, and how to help youngsters learn the difference between wants and needs.

Increasingly, though, readers have been asking about how to keep their children informed when tough economic times land at the front door.

Take the 8-year-old son of one of my friends who asked whether Dad was going to lose his job.

Or the teen who pressed to know if the family was cutting back on holiday gift-giving this year, meaning no Xbox.

Tough times about the family budget mean tough conversations about money are a necessity.

If you're cutting back -- and who isn't? -- here are some examples of how you can broach the topic with children of all ages, from grade school through college.

First, deal with the situation as honestly and gently as you can. Reassure your children that everything will be all right, that you have a plan in place if things go awry, that your money is safely insured and that you have skills that could make you attractive in another job. You can share more details with high schoolers or college-age children.

The idea is not to scare your kids, said Maureen Dolan Rosen, a Chapel Hill, N.C., author of two money-management workbooks for children.

Should you mention how much money you make or how much you owe on the credit card? Don't go there. Instead, focus on how the family is fortunate to have a roof over its head, food on the table and money to pay the bills.

To the extent that your children can grasp it, talk about how many consumers got in over their heads with credit cards and mortgage loans, and are now paying the price for living beyond their means.

Don't have these family money conversations when you are reacting emotionally to an "I want" moment with your child at the toy store, said University of Maryland financial educator Megan O'Neil-Haight.

She suggests having a calm discussion that starts something like this: "You know, we probably aren't going to have as many gifts this year, but they will all be special." Or, depending on your children's ages, explain that "Santa is probably cutting back as well and wants to make sure there are toys for everyone."

Then, nail down with your children exactly what is reasonable on the wish list and what is not. "If a new laptop or an Xbox is out of the realm of possibilities, say that in the most empathetic way, but be sure to say it," O'Neil-Haight said.

Another way to convey the limits or help guide your children's wish lists is to encourage them to list three or four items that don't total a lot of money.

Working on the wish list is a great opportunity to get younger children started on the "wants vs. needs" method of spending and to be thinking about homemade ornaments, cards and other gifts that don't need to be purchased, said Leslie Linfield, executive director of the Institute for Financial Literacy in Portland, Maine.

This could a great chance to cut back on holiday excess and to focus on family activities that will be more memorable than what's under the tree, such as pitching in on a canned-food drive or collecting winter clothing, said Elisabeth Donati, the author of "The Ultimate Allowance."

If you have older children in college, make sure they are becoming informed on money matters, and emphasize the importance of being aware of spending habits and staying out of debt.

Having these types of tough conversations is probably easier for parents who have long conveyed to their kids a lifestyle of thrift, Dolan Rosen said.

"It's the parents who, unfortunately, have been lax or have been operating under a demand-and-supply mode with their kids who are likely having to rein in spending for their surprised offspring," she said.

Finally, when many are feeling the pain of too little money and too many pressing needs for food and shelter, I'm reminded of a business-owner friend who always says, "This shall pass. Times will get better."

Don't table that discussion, either.

Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen(AT) or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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