Kids these days don't know how bad they have it. Debt levels and bankruptcy are at record highs. Jobs are going overseas, and the government might not be able to foot the future generation's retirement tab. Studies show that less than 20% of workers ages 21 to 24 choose to sock away even one dime in their work retirement plan when handed the paperwork. In the meantime, the average college graduate saunters past the dean's podium with $3,000 in credit card debt trailing behind. And here's the real kicker: The under-25 crowd has the fastest-growing rate of bankruptcy in the country.
We can shake our heads all we want, but we shouldn't be surprised that the young struggle with financial affairs. Practical money management skills aren't taught in most schools. Kids simply don't know enough to say "no" when lenders and cell-phone providers entice them with all sorts of goodies to get them to sign on the dotted line.
What's a parent to do?
Talk about it, that's what. Bring your kids into the fold while they are still living under your roof. Expose your little lovelies to the realities of family finances -- show them what it costs to put a roof over their head and junk food in their packed lunches. Regale them with stories about your biggest money blunders and how you recovered (or are still paying the price). (Here are some other tips on how to keep your kid's attention during down times in Grand Theft Auto -- the game, not the felony.)
Realize that today's kids are being courted in ways we adults never were. (Cell phones in particular are fast becoming little credit cards with antennas. About one-third of kids ages 11 to 17 have one.)
After "the talk," it's time for some action. Got a teen who's whining for a cell phone of her own? Does your son regularly ply you for extra spending cash? Go ahead and give in. In some instances, it makes sense to drive your teen into debit. Notice I said "debit," not "debt." With prepaid credit cards and cell phones, children can get hands-on practice under limits set by parents. (Click that previous link for some tips on avoiding some of the terrible prepaid offers designed to tempt mom and dad and offspring.)
Prepaid credit cards -- essentially a Visa or MasterCard gift card -- offer the convenience of traditional credit cards but with strict spending limits set by the cardholder (or you, the cardholder's parents). Prepaid cell-phone plans similarly teach teens to work within a budget (minutes, not cash, in this case).
What should a parent do when your kid's card or cell phone runs dry? Ground them.
Just kidding. Give your kid a little leeway those first few months. After all, it takes some folks a lifetime to learn to live within a budget. After that, tell them they'll have to bail themselves out of a pinch. (Welcome to the real world!)
By road-testing these financial products under the watchful eye of a parent, teens can be safely ushered into a world where most service providers bank on their inability to show any restraint.