When to Teach Kids About Credit Card Debt?

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Recently I participated in a TweetChat on the topic of “teaching kids the value of money.” One of the responses from another participant frankly startled me.

The question: “When is the right time to talk to your children about credit card debt?”

The answer: “I’d say when they have their own card (and a real sense of consequences), most likely as a freshman in college.”

After picking my jaw up off the kitchen table, I sent out this response:

Waiting till they have their own card is like waiting till daughter gets pregnant to say, “Don’t misuse that thing, y’hear?”

Another chat participant suggested that “16 is a good age to start talking to them about it as they are approaching age to get credit.”

Start talking about it at 16? Debt – specifically, how to avoid it – is the kind of thing we need to talk to our kids about from the time they’re old enough to start matching “money” with “things I want.”

Connecting the dots

Some kids don’t even see money all that often – real money, that is. Their parents’ paychecks are direct-deposited and their bills paid online. Mom and Dad use debit or credit cards for everything from a quart of milk to a family vacation.

If they’ve maxed out those credit cards, they don’t talk about it. If they have enough money to invest, they don’t talk about it. Money is one of the last great taboos.

Too often “all our kids ever see us do with money is spend it — they don’t see us save, they don’t see us give to charity, they don’t see us pay bills,” says Neale Godfrey, author of a number of personal finance books.

She and other PF experts with whom I spoke for “How to raise money-smart kids” on MSN Money offered tips for getting your kids to connect the dots between “money” and “responsibility.” Some examples:

At the supermarket. Have them circle items in the food ads. Let them match coupons to products. Explain that you’re buying store-brand oatmeal because it tastes the same and costs less.

At the cash machine. The money we earn at work goes to the bank and we can use it for things we need. But we can’t take out more than we earn.

While shopping. Use price comparison websites to find the best deals. Hit cash-back shopping sites like Extrabux or Mr. Rebates. See if you can meet some of your needs through thrift stores and yard sales. Explain why you’re doing these things, e.g., “This sled cost us only $5 at the garage sale — it would have been five or six times as much at the hardware store.”

In the toy aisle. “Your allowance isn’t enough to pay for that toy. If you really want it, you can get it by saving for a few weeks.” Delayed gratification is a great skill to learn young. (Some adults I know still haven’t mastered it.)

At the library. Books specifically for young people are out there. A few I’d suggest:

If your library doesn’t have these books, ask if they can be ordered or at least borrowed from another branch.

Online. Plenty of free online games and apps will help you teach your children about money, starting with the “Sesame Street” set (“For Me, For You, For Later: First Steps to Spending, Sharing and Saving“).

Walking your talk

And when your kids come home talking about a classmate’s electronics-saturated home or the theme park vacations everyone else seems to take each spring?

Model your own values by talking goals, such as “We are choosing to put money away for your education and our retirement” or “We choose to have one parent at home, so we have to be very smart with our money.”

Always frame your spending as “choice,” says my MSN Money colleague Liz Weston, who was also at the TweetChat. Rather than saying “We can’t afford that on what we earn,” say “We’re choosing to spend differently.” Because you are: You’re choosing to spend less than you earn rather than go into debt for things you can live without.

You might also remind them of the places your money goes. I once read about a couple who, weary of their kids’ constant begging for Stuff, brought their paychecks home in cash and piled the bills on the table. The kids’ eyes bugged out: Wow, we’re rich! Then Mom and Dad started carving off chunks of cash: this much for the mortgage, for utilities, for groceries, for the orthodontist ….

When most of the money had been taken away, the parents said, “This is how much we have left to live on each month.”

The kids got it. They might not have been happy with it, but at least they understood the connection between available dollars and everyday obligations. “Live below your means” is a huge, huge lesson. (Again, many adults haven’t figured this one out.)

During the chat Liz reminded us that every kid is different. Money education techniques that worked like a charm with your first kid might not register with your second.

Try anyway. Please. Sending your kid out into the world with zero experience of money is setting him up to fail.

Readers: How do/did you approach finances with your kids?

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