Debt is a four-letter word, and your kids need to know it. The current public mood on debt ranges between loathing and fear. Nearly 20% of American adults expect to die with debts unpaid and a third of teens -- perhaps because they've seen their elders saddled with lifelong debts -- say taking on debt for college is "not worth it."
Too much debt is a disaster, no doubt. But a carefully handled loan can help a young person get a degree, and a healthy credit score is crucial to finding a place to live and even getting a job. Steer your kids in the right direction by teaching them these debt "secrets" and backing them up with practical experience.
Credit costs money
You and I know that credit isn't free, but kids need to understand that borrowing money is not like borrowing a classmate's pen -- unless that classmate charges a fee for lending out pens.
For younger kids and tweens, Northwestern Mutual's financial literacy site, TheMint, has a simple debt calculator to make this point. Kids can purchase fictional concert tickets, a vacation, a car, or textbooks on credit and see how much they'll really pay compared to the cash price.
Teenagers need a different spin on this lesson. They may know intellectually that credit costs money, but the allure of a shiny card is strong. I've found a quick way to cool off a credit-dazzled teen: Have him or her read a card application's fine print out loud to you -- especially the sections about interest rates, late fees, and rate hikes. Now it's not just you saying that credit costs money. They're getting it straight from the credit card issuer and hearing it in their own voice.
Debt can hang on after the thrill is gone
Brooklyn-based educational hip-hop video producer Flocabulary shares the sad tale of Melvin, who racks up credit card debt and wrecks his credit rating over Super Bowl tickets. Lana, meanwhile, does her credit card homework and spends carefully to avoid regret.
The clip shows kids they could be paying for a game, concert, or toy on credit long after they're over it. For teens, the takeaway is that badly managed credit card debt can hinder their independence by keeping them from getting their own place or car.
Borrow what you need, not what you can get
Make sure your kids understand that if they have good credit, lenders may be willing to offer them a bigger loan than they need, because the more they borrow, the more the lender makes on interest. For young kids, a good analogy is birthday cake. One slice is great, but eating the whole thing will make them sick. As Warren Buffett tells the readers of the Secret Millionaires Club, "Credit cards can seem like an easy way to buy things, but it's not a good idea to make a habit of using them. The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they're too heavy to be broken."
Teenagers can usually grasp the idea of keeping something back. For example, maybe you could get a loan to buy a high-end sports car. But if you take out a smaller loan for a compact car, you've got borrowing power in reserve for college loans or unforeseen emergencies down the road.
Real-life practice: Give your kid a loan
Whenever you hear, "Please! I swear I'll pay you back!" you have an opening for a learning experience. It's one thing to talk about debt. It's another to experience the feelings that come with paying month after month on a purchase. If you feel your kids are ready and their request is worthwhile, offer to spot them a loan -- with an interest rate, payment terms, and a penalty clause if they miss a payment.
Show them how much the loan will cost compared to the cash price. Put the payment schedule on your calendar so you don't accidentally teach your kids that repayment is optional. And lend only as much as they need.
Lending your kids money is not without risks. They may decide to go on a chore strike or be stricken with borrower's remorse. You may even have to temporarily repossess a computer, video game, or other item. But they'll be smarter consumers and better money managers because of the experience, and they'll see debt as a tool to be used carefully and not just as a four-letter word.