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Gen M: Multimedia or Multimillionaire?

Let's face it: Given the chance to redo high school, most of us would:

  1. Wear sunscreen.
  2. Invest in Microsoft's IPO.

Instead, we slathered on baby oil to get extra tan for our prom pictures and spent our allowances on Phil Collins cassettes and Return of the Jedi action figures.

The times... honestly, they haven't changed all that much. Today's teens are following in our footsteps, albeit with their own modern twist: They spend hours basking in the glow of electronics and whip out their debit cards for iTunes and, well, Star Wars stuff.

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids spend more than six hours a day with media (TV, videos, music, video games, computers, movies, and print) -- and that a quarter of that time is spent using two or more types of media at the same time. Of the 2,000 kids surveyed in grades 3 through 12, two-thirds have a TV in their room, with 40% of those sets hooked up to cable or satellite. Half have a bedside video game player, and one-third have a bedroom computer plugged into the already overcrowded power strip.

These high-tech 8- to 18-year-old multitaskers have earned the moniker "Generation M" -- for Media. Kiddos, if I were you, I'd be offended. As a Gen X'er, I will forever be identified as part of a clique of grungy slackers -- not a real selling point on the resume in those early years. My advice to today's youth? If you're going to get stuck with "Gen M," how about gunning for "Generation Millionaire" instead?

Reality bites
Kids these days don't know how good they could have it. We've all read the examples and mourned our lost youth. I'll rub it in for old time's sake: A 25-year-old investing $200 each month for just 10 years will have $402,797 in her retirement kitty by age 65 (assuming an annual 8% return). If a 35-year-old were to invest $200 each month until age 65 -- that's two decades longer than the doe-eyed quarter-lifer in the next cubicle -- she ends up with a little more than $300,000 (minus whatever she spent on Botox for those retirement savings worry wrinkles).

Yet when they finally get the opportunity, fewer than 20% of today's workers between 21 and 24 bother contributing to their company 401(k), even when their employer offers to match their savings dollar for dollar. That's more than twice the rate of nonparticipation of baby boomers. What's worse, the fastest-growing group of those who declare bankruptcy is under age 25.

No wonder. When the National Council of Economic Education recently quizzed high-school students on their knowledge of personal finance, the average score was a 53. (That's an "F" for those who don't have memories of report-card day seared into their psyche.) Don't tsk-tsk today's youth for not hitting the books: Only half of high-school students say they have been taught economics in school, and even then, the lessons don't come until 12th grade. (Here's what else wasn't being taught in schools when we weren't paying attention anyway.)

Want to be a real rebel? Scrawl something useful on the bathroom stall. How about: "Dude! Spend less money than you make!!!"

Junior! Take off those headphones and become a millionaire right now!
What's a parent of a Gen M'er to do?

Resort to bribery.

Seriously, when it comes to preparing your little Gen M darling for the money realities of the real world, you'd better hurry up. Most kids already have access to the tools of financial success -- or financial disaster. According to Junior Achievement and the Allstate Foundation, 11% of teenagers already have credit cards in their own name. One-third of teenagers have their own cell phone -- which can quickly turn into a credit card with an antenna if you don't keep close tabs on your minutes.

Instead of making Buffy and Biff "authorized users" on your credit card, give them their own plastic to play with. Prepaid debit cards have a few important stopgaps that parents can appreciate. A prepaid debit card is like a reusable check -- purchases are deducted from the amount deposited onto the card. Unlike a debit card from your bank, prepaid cards have no lifeline to a checking account. The cardholder (or the cardholder's parents) can set strict spending limits so that Junior can't wipe you out at Urban Outfitters.

Same goes for cell phones. The equipment has evolved -- from pink princess phones to mobile camera phones with 248 ring tones -- but the problem remains the same: Teens talk on the phone. A lot. How can you prevent your wireless plan from becoming the black sheep of your bills? Like prepaid credit cards, prepaid cell phone plans are ideal for kids who lack an adult's impulse control and access to cash. It can save parents from opening up a surprise $600 cell phone bill.

It's tough to encourage your kid to save when mass media incessantly urges them not to. But money talks. Take a cue from your 401(k) and offer to match (30 cents, 50 cents, a dollar) every dollar your children save. Let them save for a short-term treat, but offer to match even more money if they invest their money for the long term.

While they are still living under your roof and rules, turn off the TV, turn down the tunes, and give your child some hands-on money education. With a little effort, they could become Generation Millionaire. More importantly, they'll owe you big time when you're running short on cash in retirement.

Fool writerDayana Yochimwears SPF 15 every day. The Fool'sdisclosure policydoesn't look a day over 29.


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