10 Unavoidable Money Conversations to Have With Your Spouse, Kids, and Parents
Nothing's quite as uncomfortable as talking about money with family members, but think of these 10 essential—and yes, they are essential—conversations as financial heart to hearts for everyone's benefit. At the end of the day, knowing you and your loved ones are on the same page will make everyone's lives easier. Whether it's talking monthly expenses with your spouse, budgeting for college with your high schooler, or writing a durable power of attorney for your parents, these are the money topics to discuss now so you're not in a pinch later.
Money Conversations to Have With Your Spouse
“Where Does All Our Money Go?”
Why it's important: If you don't know where it goes, you could end up running low, not to mention straining your relationship. "Financial issues are the number one reason I see couples divorcing," says Barton Goldsmith, a psychotherapist and the author of Emotional Fitness for Intimacy ($11, amazon.com). The biggest marriage-buster among them? Overspending. "Oftentimes a spender marries a saver," Goldsmith says. "They need to master the art of compromise, and if they don't, their relationship can quickly get complicated."
When to talk about it: Yesterday, says Goldsmith. Seriously, though, every couple needs to have the "where does our money go?" discussion. Even if your finances seem to be in good shape, you should check in regularly in case priorities change or debt sneaks in unnoticed.
What to do first: Suggest to your spouse that the two of you―together―keep a monthlong spending journal that tracks personal and household expenses.
How to bring it up: When the month is over and it's time to talk, focus on your feelings rather than each other's actions. Something like "I'll sleep better knowing our finances are in order," takes any judgment out of the discussion and offers your spouse a concrete way to work with you. Then use the spending journal to look for ways to stay on budget, cut back spending, or save more. It's also a good time to create a list of long-term savings goals.
“Do We Need to Change Who Does What?”
Why it's important: It's rare, and not always practical, for couples to share equally in day-to-day financial duties. If the balance gets out of whack or you're juggling tasks you don't fully understand, then bills could be missed, credit scores could suffer, and, again, resentment and conflict may ensue.
When to talk about it: As soon as possible. Why keep going with a broken system when you can easily have a healthy conversation about your concerns?
What to do first: Compile a list of every financial decision made or task performed in your household, from paying the gas bill to reallocating your 401(k) investments.
How to bring it up: Suggest holding a monthly household-business meeting (to make it a little less daunting, turn it into more of a monthly money date). When you talk about money at an appointed time, tempers stay in check and work gets done, Goldsmith says. At the first one, go over your list and reassign responsibilities more evenly and appropriately. Repeat as necessary.
“Are Our Retirement Plans on Track?”
Why it's important: In an ideal world, you need about eight times your annual salary to stop working, which is a lot of money. If you're not on track now, it's time to start (your future selves will thank you!).
When to talk about it: ASAP.
What to do first: Open your account statements. It's tempting to ignore them and remain on autopilot, but bite the bullet and get in there.
How to bring it up: Get right to the point: "I've been looking closely at our investments, and I'm worried we won't be able to retire at age 65," will definitely get your spouse's attention. Then quickly follow with, "Let's figure out how to get back on course." An online retirement calculator (like the ones at money.cnn.com) can help. It might also be a good time to schedule an appointment with a financial planner who can offer objective advice and make sure you don't overlook any options. (Find a licensed one at fpanet.org.)
“What Is Our Risk Tolerance When It Comes to Investments?”
Why it's important: If one of you thinks there's a fortune to be made in the market and the other can't stand the idea of losing a cent, you'll be tempted to keep changing course and never meet your investment goals. And it's all about teamwork.
When to talk about it: Natural times to bring this up: during tax season, when you're looking at your investment income, and at year's end, when many people reevaluate their finances. But simply checking your portfolio online can offer a chance to raise the subject.
What to do first: Learn need-to-know terminology. Read some articles or books on investing, such as Jonathan D. Pond's You Can Do It! ($10, amazon.com), and Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People, by Jane Bryant Quinn (Simon & Schuster, $21, amazon.com), and you'll see that knowing your risk-tolerance level―whether low or high―is essential to successful investing. (These books will also help you assess your tolerance.) While you're at it, avoid dramatic declarations like, "I'm scared we'll lose all our money!" and start using more tempered language, like "risk tolerance," instead to help keep your cool while talking investments.
How to bring it up: If you're the one who's averse to making risky investments, simply state that you're not comfortable with having such an aggressive portfolio. If you're the more aggressive one, ease into it―you don't want to scare your partner off. Saying something like "I think we're missing enormous opportunities because we're too conservative" should help get the ball rolling. Either way, both of you should be prepared to find a middle ground for the sake of your relationship, if not your portfolio. Meeting with a fee-only financial planner (who won't steer you into investments that pay him the highest commissions) can also help you find investments and formulate long-term savings goals you're both comfortable with.
Conversations to Have With Your Kids
“You Don’t Need That New iPhone—You Want It.”
Why it's important: Determining what is and isn't essential will guide their spending habits for a lifetime (and help them start to grasp why sometimes you as parents need to prioritize something other than a product they want).
When to talk about it: As soon as your kids start to notice what things cost, usually in the first or second grade. Hammer home the point during their brand-conscious tweens and teens.
What to do first: Print out a copy of your family budget. (If you don't want to show your income, limit the figures to monthly expenses.) Then go over it with your kids. (Don't have a budget? Microsoft 360 has free templates subscribers can download.
How to bring it up: "Let's take a look at where the money goes" is a good opener. Getting kids interested may be easy: Sixty percent of the teens surveyed in a study by the investment firm Schwab and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America said that learning about money management is a top priority.
“I’m Giving You Your First Credit Card. But…”
Why it's important: Think of it like driving a car: The only way kids can learn to use a credit card wisely is by borrowing yours.
When to talk about it: When they're juniors or seniors in high school. Certainly before college, where they'll be inundated with credit-card offers and are liable to spend irresponsibly.
What to do first: Add your under–18-year-old as an authorized user on your account. Set a $100 credit limit on their card, says Jennifer Austin Leigh, Psy.D., a psychologist and a family adviser based in New York City. If your teen handles that well, increase it by $100. "If you give kids too much credit to begin with, you're setting them up to fail," Leigh warns.
How to bring it up: Handing over the card will get your kid's attention. But follow it up with the analogy of the $50 pizza, says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action, a consumer-education advocacy group. You charge a $10 pie but forget to pay the bill. Then you're hit with a $40 late fee, and before long that pizza costs five times as much. From there, you can explain interest charges, minimum monthly payments, credit scores, credit reports, and how it can get you if you're not responsible with your plastic.
“Let’s Plan How Best to Pay for College”
Why it's important: The average annual cost of college? According to The College Board $52,500 for a private four-year school and $25,890 for a four-year public school (as an in-state student). As a parent, it's your job to work out how to put your child through college without leaving them in serious debt or bankrupting your own retirement, says Kalman A. Chany, founder of Campus Consultants, a college consulting firm based in New York City. Whether or not your child has to help contribute, include them in the discussion.
When to talk about it: You and your spouse should begin to consider the costs of higher education as soon as your child is born, Chany says. And start saving right away. Once your child starts to talk about college, which usually happens when they're in middle school, it's a good time to introduce how much it costs.
What to do first: Start investing in 529 plans and Coverdell Education Saving Accounts, which work like Roth IRAs. Visit savingforcollege.com, a website that compares various savings options.
How to bring it up: Be positive with your child. This is not about discouraging or scaring them away from higher education; it's about stressing that cost could factor into the decision. Explain to tweens that tuition can be expensive: "I'm so glad you're thinking about college. We should all start talking about how to pay for it." For high school kids, get specific: "Those are great options, but let's include some more affordable schools on your list, too." Be up front about financial aid: In some instances, you'll need to talk about how to share the expenses and explore different possibilities for scholarships and/or loans.
Conversations to Have With Your Parents
“Do You Have Enough to Retire Comfortably?”
Why it's important: Many people contribute to their parents' finances. With many people living into their 80s and beyond, it is more likely than ever that retirees will outlive their savings.
When to talk about it: It's never too early to bring this up, even if it is an uncomfortable topic. If your parents seem too young or are already retired, discuss their long-term plans and goals, and whether or not they're on track.
What to do first: Check with your siblings to see if they've had similar conversations with your folks. It might be best to have just one adult child make the approach. The hlepful retirement calculator at bankrate.com can estimate how large a nest egg your parents will need in their retirement years.
How to bring it up: Gently. Having a context for the conversation helps: "Mom, I noticed that you were careful at the grocery store. I don't want you worrying about money during retirement." Remember: "It may take more than one try," says Virginia Morris, author of How to Care for Aging Parents ($13, amazon.com). "Often parents don't want to talk with kids about finances."
“Have You Thought About Long-Term Care Insurance?”
Why it's important: The average cost for a private room in a nursing home can reach over $90,000 a year. Long-term-care insurance helps cover expenses like these.
When to talk about it: When your parents are in their late 50s or early 60s and in good health. That's when they'll be most likely to find an affordable policy.
What to do first: Search for and show them articles on the subject so you can present the facts clearly. For a sense of potential costs and insurance benefits, check out the LTC Insurance Evaluator tool at aarp.org.
How to bring it up: Use your grandparents as an excuse, suggests Marilee Kern Driscoll, keynote speaker, business consultant, and president of The Marilee Driscoll Company. Say something like "Mom, remember what you went through with Grandma when she was in a nursing home? She had to pay an awful lot of money out of pocket. Have you made any plans if that should happen to you or Dad down the road?" If your own family doesn't fit this scenario, mention one of your friends who has gone through a similar situation with her grandparents or parents. Then follow up by sharing the articles you've read.
“In an Emergency, Who Do You Want to Manage Your Finances?”
Why it's important: If a parent is suddenly incapacitated, they need a durable power of attorney to have someone make financial decisions on his behalf.
When to talk about it: Now—no matter how young or healthy your parents are.
What to do first: Draft a durable power of attorney for yourself―everyone needs one.
How to bring it up: Use yourself as an example. Tell your parents you had a durable power of attorney written and ask if they have one. If they do, find out where the paperwork is. If they don't, offer to help. Use the opportunity to discuss other emergency legal documents, like a living will and a health proxy.