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Help! My teen is a money monster

By Peter Andrew

Help! My teen is a money monster

Short of bequeathing them so much money ($150 million each should do it) that they never have to worry about their finances, there are few gifts you can give your kids that could be more valuable than the skills and attitudes they need to be great money managers.

By the time they reach their mid-teens, you can pretty much see how their financial lives are going to pan out: Mary and Bob are forever borrowing against next week's allowance, while Tom and Jennifer have a thriving schoolyard loansharking business and robust balances in their savings accounts.

Often you don't have to wait for kids to hit puberty before you begin to spot the signs of competent or catastrophic attitudes to cash. One day you're changing their diaper, and the next, it feels, you're either lending them a couple of dollars or raiding their piggy banks. And, sometimes, siblings in the same family have very different money habits, even though they've all been brought up with the same financial norms, advice and education.

Genes, elephants and money

We're a long way from discovering the money gene, but last year Chase published an academic study that asked whether we all leave our mothers' wombs with our financial skills and attitudes pre-programmed. In "Born to Spend?," Professor Hersh Shefrin differentiated between two types of thought processes: "Fast thinking" tends to be instinctual, while "slow thinking" is more strategic.

Shefrin suggests a metaphor: An elephant works almost entirely instinctively, moving around in response to external stimuli, such as food, water or a mate. Train an elephant, and put a human driver (a "mahout") on its back, and -- even though it's much more powerful than the person -- it can be made to carry out complex tasks. Left to its own devices, the elephant uses fast-thinking processes, but the mahout provides a higher level of (slow) thinking.

Extend that metaphor to humans, and some of us are born with highly skilled mahouts, who guide us to make smart, counter-instinctive financial decisions, and some of us are born with weak mahouts who stand no chance of controlling our much more powerful elephantine impulses.

Which sort of elephant driver we get has nothing to do with how moral or intelligent we are. Plenty of hopeless money managers are both good people and very smart in every other respect. It depends on what many believe to be a genetic lottery.

Mahout school

The good news is that Professor Shefrin believes we can train our mahouts (or, in medical-speak, the parts of our pre-frontal cortices that control spending impulses) to do better jobs. Switching metaphors, he compares financial discipline to another genetic lottery: athleticism. Some of us are natural athletes, who with training can be truly outstanding. Others will never reach Olympian heights -- or even become above average -- no matter how hard we train. However, nearly all of us can improve on the athletic aptitude with which we were born.

The bad news is our financial education programs are failing. When, in 2007, the Jump$tart Survey of Financial Literacy quizzed 12th grade high school students, they got only half the questions right. That was down from 57 percent a decade earlier. Worse, those who'd taken classes designed to improve their financial literacy scored no better than those who hadn't.

To give you some idea of how dire high school seniors' knowledge was in the following year's survey, fewer than half knew that credit card holders who paid off their balances in full every month would pay less in finance charges than those who carried forward debt.

What you can do

Prof. Shefrin has a number of ideas for how educators, the media and financial institutions can improve young people's knowledge and behavior (there's a correlation between the two), but doesn't explore the role of parents. However, common sense suggests you can help your kids. Here are some ideas:

  1. Recognize that poor money management isn't a sign of moral weakness or a lack of intelligence. Instead, help your kids to train their mahouts through positive reinforcement.
  2. Clear a path for their elephants, and show them how to follow it. Shefrin suggests that experience can be critical to understanding, so why not involve your teen in your household accounts? Even if yours are a mess, they're a learning opportunity -- a cautionary lesson, perhaps. Have him or her help you pay bills and balance your books. You might even do a better job yourself, once you're under the scrutiny of a teenager's judgmental eyes.
  3. Look out for fun electronic games and apps that address financial issues. A quick web search should find loads, many of which are both free and designed for kids. Again, Shefrin found these particularly effective learning tools.
  4. Impart savings lessons early. As Justin Boyle recently wrote, it's wise to help your kids develop good savings habits while they're still young.

Have you had good or bad experiences trying to get your kids to be good money managers? Or do you have any ideas to add to that list? If so, please do share them. You could save a youngster from a hard and stressful life, full of of debt and desperation.

Peter Andrew has over 25 years of experience writing about marketing, advertising and management. He regularly covers consumer credit card topics for IndexCreditCards.com and other personal finance publications including Fox Business, TheStreet and MSN Money. He also writes frequently about mortgages and auto loans. Peter has spent extended periods living overseas, in the UK, France and Africa. He lives with his partner of 20+ years, and wastes too much of his time on cryptic crosswords.

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