For more than a decade now, I’ve worked with affluent families, many of whom are multi-generational. As I reflect on the conversations I’ve had with these families, I’m struck by one recurring theme. Many affluent parents struggle to talk to their adult children about money. I’ve seen these types of conversations go well and not so well. Talking about money often stirs up very strong emotions for both parents and their adult children.
It seems to me that most parents have one overriding goal. They want their adult children to adopt habits that will lead to complete financial independence. The parents seem to believe that if their adult children adopt these good habits, they will be stable for life, long after the parents are gone. If you or someone you care about is struggling to talk about money, I’d like to offer some suggestions that I think can really help you.
AN AIRPLANE TECHNICIAN
To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’d like to tell you the story of a good friend. I’ll call him Karl, even though that’s not his real name. Karl and his wife Betty (again, not her real name) found themselves staring down what felt to them like a mountain of debt. Karl worked as an airplane technician on fighter jets and made a decent income. Betty also worked. Some months, their income barely exceeded their expenses.
I won’t describe how they came into this debt, but the circumstances are all too common today. Some of the debt came from choices they made, choices that may not have been the best. But some of the debt also came from circumstances beyond their control. The most important thing is that it seemed to Karl and Betty as if it would be nearly impossible to pay off their debts themselves.
Betty’s father was well-off and more than capable, financially, of bailing them out. Karl and Betty had a choice to make. They could ask Betty’s father to pay down most or all of their debt. Or they could struggle to do it themselves.
Karl and Betty decided to try to do it themselves. They got good advice about how to slowly pay off their debts while also building long-term wealth. It took them nearly a decade, but they did it. They achieved complete financial independence and today they stand on their own two feet financially. They are comfortable and the mountain of debt is gone.
I won’t tell you that this was easy for them or even that they enjoyed the experience. It was hard. It took a long time. They had to be really focused and completely committed to their financial goals. But along the way, something pretty amazing happened. Karl and Betty became stronger as a couple. The struggle fused them together in a way that almost nothing else could have done. In fact, I believe this entire family is stronger for having gone through this experience.
SOME IDEAS TO HELP YOU HAVE EFFECTIVE CONVERSATIONS
After reflecting on numerous situations like the one I described above, I’d like to put forward a few ideas about how to have effective money conversations with adult children:
- Lead by example.
- Make bailouts your last resort.
- Be clear about the financial disciplines you want your adult children to adopt.
- Negotiate for the behavior you want to see.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
When forced to choose what to believe—either someone’s words or actions—most people will believe actions. This is why the strongest and the most effective message you can deliver to your adult children is your behavior, your example. Words matter too. But actions paired with words are much more powerful.
In my experience, most adult children probably don’t see behind the curtain—what you’ve done and how you’ve gotten here in life. They probably see the payoffs from what you’ve done, but not how you’ve done it. So if you want your adult children to achieve complete financial independence, model for them how you’ve done it. How do you do this? Here are few simple suggestions:
- Talk about your journey and how long it’s taken you to get to where you are in life today.
- Talk about your financial struggles and how committed you’ve been to your goals.
- Talk about something you’ve wanted but didn’t buy because it didn’t fit your budget.
- Talk about your financial plan and how important this has been to you.
- Talk about your relationship with your financial advisor and how they’ve guided you.
But maybe the single best thing you could for your adult child, to help them achieve financial independence, is introduce them to a financial advisor who can help them build their own financial plan.
MAKE BAILOUTS YOUR LAST RESORT
I believe one of the worst things affluent parents can do is bail their children out of their financial problems. Money habits are a lot like personal health and fitness habits. There is no lack of information today, no dearth of books and videos, that describe how to eat right, exercise, take vitamins and live a healthy lifestyle. But that information won’t help unless someone turns it into a set of habits. I think the same thing is true about money. To get healthy financially, people need good habits.
Bailouts eliminate the opportunity to flex the muscles of financial discipline. I have seen affluent parents bail adult children out of debt and make them swear to never again engage in the behavior that got them in trouble. But a few months or years down the road, they face the same situation yet again.
It’s a hard thing as a parent to see your children struggle. Our impulse is to help them. But sometimes that can hurt more than it helps. I’m not suggesting that parents should never offer financial assistance. But in my experience, adult children learn very little when they are bailed out. You wouldn’t go to the gym yourself and expect that your exercise regimen will make your children stronger. They have to flex their muscles for themselves.
BE CLEAR ABOUT THE FINANCIAL DISCIPLINES YOU WANT TO SEE
Money talk can lead to tense conversations rather quickly. A parent never really stops being a parent. And no matter how much success their children have in life, they are still the children of their parents. Adult children who prize their independence probably don’t want to hear about the mistakes they’ve made in the past, especially from their parents.
The old relationship dynamic of parent-dominate and child-submissive can inhibit effective communication. The way I typically hear this is when adult children say things like “there you go again trying to control me” or “why can’t you treat me like an adult?”
So rather than focus on the behavior you don’t want to see, I recommend that you focus on the financial disciplines you do want to see. In my experience, most parents want to see their adult children adopt these habits:
- Building an emergency fund that is equal to six months of living expenses.
- Living within, or beneath, your means every month.
- Developing and following a financial plan and a spending plan.
- Saving a portion of your income every month, especially if you can get free money through a 401k matching program at work.
- Having good communication and alignment with a spouse or significant other about money.
- Identifying clear long-term financial goals and working to achieve them.
NEGOTIATE FOR THE BEHAVIOR YOU WANT TO SEE
When I was a teenager, my father began to negotiate with me and my siblings to create incentives to buy the things we wanted. He would make deals with us where if we achieved certain milestones, then he would reward that behavior. For example, if we wanted something expensive, he would offer to pay half if we worked and saved up for the other half. It was our responsibility to come up with our half of the money. If we didn’t do it, that was on us.
I believe that the tension that can sometimes creep into money conversations can be alleviated most effectively by way of negotiation. When adult children are told what to do or reminded of their mistakes, they probably don’t feel very good about themselves and, therefore, are probably not very motivated to make healthy changes.
But a negotiation often creates positive momentum to achieve certain goals. For example, just above, I listed six habits that can lead to complete financial independence. If these are the habits you’d like to see your adult children adopt, then the question becomes—what can you do to create incentives for them to achieve those milestones?
For example, let’s assume a young adult is a college graduate with a good job and five years of experience. They want to buy a home but saving enough money for the down payment could take them a very long time. This is an excellent opportunity to negotiate. Here is an example of what this could sound like.
Parent to Adult Child:
- If you build up an emergency fund with six months of living expenses and…
- Live on a budget for at least one year without going over-budget every month and…
- Max out the 401k option at work and…
- Work with a financial advisor to build a long-term plan…
- Then I will supply the down payment on the house.
If the adult child achieves all of the milestones listed here, that demonstrates real commitment on their part. It also shows that they are well on their way to complete financial independence.
In my experience, most affluent parents of adult children want them to achieve complete financial independence. These parents know that if their children adopt habits that lead to independence, their future will be far more stable and certain. The ideas I’ve put forward here can lead to effective conversations that inspire good financial habits. If you’d like to pick my brains about your unique situation, please reach out for a conversation.
© 2020 Whitnell & Co. The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only.