Money Mistakes: Not My Parents

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Financial education

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I admit – when I saw this most recent poll about the way we see our parents and their spending habits, I realized I too I had always believed my loving and sweet parents were incapable of making financial mistakes, despite the money problems that seemed to pop up from time to time. Our family was the epitome of the traditional American image of love and loyalty, but there were those bumps in the road, up to and including a bankruptcy when baby sis and I were in high school. Yet it never occurred to me that they could make mistakes. And now – I realize I’m not alone.

Just Write a Check

It’s still my mother’s favorite story, the whole argument about wanting a toy and being met with,

Not this week. Daddy and I have a responsibility to you and your sister to keep the electricity on – even at the expense of a toy you won’t even remember a week from now.

Of course, that was met with the classic, “Mommm! Just write a check!” Needless to say, there were a lot of eye rolls and threats to “tell your daddy” and promises that when he gets home, he’ll fix it.

My father was a teacher after returning home from the Vietnam War and Mom worked for one of the law enforcement agencies in our state. Neither career was going to make anyone wealthy, but what their hard work did do was provide opportunities for my sister and I to chase our own dreams. If we knew then what we know now, it’s easy to believe we probably could have benefited from a bit more open approach about money between us and our parents.

Fidelity Factor

The survey, which was conducted by Fidelity Investments, reveals kids are still reluctant to listen to reason when the budget is too tight and it also reveals parents today are still hesitant to discuss family expenses – just like our parents were.

Almost half of us past the age of 30 say we believe that our parents made no financial mistakes. A lot of it could be because parents in the late 60s and 70s still followed the mindset that children shouldn’t be burdened with the grownup responsibilities we’d face soon enough anyway once we reached our own adulthood.

Money has been a taboo topic, especially between kids and their parents, for hundreds of years. It was simply the old school way that was passed down from one generation to the next, revealed the study. One interesting caveat in the survey is the obvious proof that our parents weren’t perfect financial wizards. Remember, there were more than a few recessions over the past three decades. Plus, the foreclosures of recent years, the brutal economy during some of the nation’s most historical times, including Vietnam, and the much-smaller retirement funds are just a few facts that should have tipped us off, but didn’t.

Moving forward

And Mom and Dad agree, too. The survey shows that one in three people who are between the ages of 60 and 65 admit they are lacking in their strong money skills. Few will be able to make it another ten years without incurring significant financial burdens. Worse, those who are at least 90 report they no longer have the advantage of any kind of savings or retirement funds.

Ah – but here’s the really interesting revelation – we may not know how much money our parents have or the tough financial problems they might have faced but you can be sure they know what we’re doing with our money. Close to 45% say their kids have too much credit card debt; 38% say their offspring are not saving enough for retirement and just slightly more than 35% say their adult children lack a sufficient emergency fund. Interesting to note, many of these parents say they faced the same realities when they were the ages their kids are now. “They are projecting a little bit,” Kathleen A. Murphy, president of Personal Investing at Fidelity, says of the parents.

They don’t want their kids to make the same mistakes that they made.

The goal should be to find some common ground for parents and their younger children now, before they leave for college or set out to define their own lives. Many are already making strides in providing financial education in high school, just like everything else, the best information comes from the parents. And guess what? It doesn’t seem to matter if parents have been poor money managers – they have a responsibility to keep the communication open when it comes to money and credit, whether it’s to teach them what not to do or if it’s to stress the importance of savings, retirement and the willingness to keep credit card debt in check. They need to be part of the process as it’s the parents who can offer a lot of sound guidance just by helping their kids avoid the same old mistakes.

Just to get an idea on how Mom and Dad feel today and whether hindsight has provided any different thoughts, I made a phone call to see what they thought about the latest report. I wasn’t surprised – not really. My questions were met with,

Well now you know your father and I do not discuss our personal finances with you kids. Everything you need to know, you’ll discover in the will.

It was all downhill from there:

Mom, I am not interested in what you’re leaving behind, I’m trying to get an idea of whether or not the decisions when we were teens were right., you know, like…now that we’re adults with teens of our own. I mean, do you think there was anything you should have told us, but didn’t? Any lessons learned? Anything at all? How to avoid credit card debt?

That was my second mistake.

Mom: Credit card debt? Oh, dear…please tell you haven’t maxed out your credit cards. Oh my…let me get your father on the phone…
Me: No, Mom. My credit cards have no balances. You’re missing the…
Mom: Jimmy! I need you to come explain credit card debt to your child!
Me: Mom, really? Are you even listening? And child? You do realize I’m almost 40, right?

The conversation went back and forth for a good five minutes and ended, finally and blissfully, when I told her I’d email her the link to today’s column, complete with a play by play of our conversation. Apparently, recapping it in black and white is the only way she’s going to be convinced that first, I’m not trying to get a peek into the will and second, that I’m not carrying balances on my Visa.

Not much has changed – Moms and Dads are still hesitant to discuss their finances with their adult kids. Meanwhile, those same adult kids are doing just the opposite with their own teenagers with discussions on the importance of saving, preparing for retirement and of course and keeping their credit card balances paid off. Just don’t tell my parents.

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About Author

David is a CPA and has spent the past decade as a financial adviser helping clients meet their fiscal objectives. With an appreciation for journalism, he has spent the past few years overseeing several financial columns as well as writing two previous finance blogs. He resides on the East Coast with his wife and two sons and has guided many through the recent recession while providing a no-nonsense approach to spending and saving.


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