Financial Independence Week: Talking To Adult Children About Money

Many of my friends during my college and early post-college years were swimming in debt, some of them to the point of being scared to open the mail. Whenever I would suggest talking to their parents or guardians about it, their faces would freeze with an additional layer of fear, as though it was the last thing on earth they wanted to do. They feared lectures, the feared they feared letting down their parents.

Since I’ve entered adulthood, I’ve had several long talks with my parents about various issues. My parents have always been quite easy to talk to, and when I had my own child, I asked them for advice on how they made topics that were so troubling so easy to talk about. Here’s what they told me, in so many words.

Don’t push. Adult children are often trying very hard to spread their wings and fly, but they will know better than you will when the time is right to ask for advice. Don’t pressure them into a conversation unless there is a strict need for it.

Admit your own mistakes. As children enter adulthood, the relationship between you and your children has to change; you need to move from being the superhero protector into being a respected and trusted advisor and friend. Admit where you’ve messed up in the past, too. No one on earth has been financially perfect, so dredge up a few of those mistakes and add to your own humanity. This will pave the road to a great deal of openness.

If you fear there are problems, let them know that it’s okay to talk about them. Tell them this directly, and bookend it with your own admissions and flaws.

Don’t be judgemental. The world of a college student today is substantially different than the world when you were that age. The culture almost coerces you to get into at least some debt trouble by making credit access so simple without explaining the drawbacks, and also making expensive consumer goods highly desirable. Student loans are also enormous, and they also have huge expectations of a great job after graduation that aren’t always feasible because a degree today isn’t worth what it was twenty years ago. Using your own experience as an indictment on theirs is completely unfair.

Ask questions and listen. When I had “money talks” with my parents, they quickly devolved into lectures in which I would sit there and nod my head and ignore every word of it. Instead of lecturing, ask them questions about how they’re spending money and listen to what they say. Questions that delicately lead towards certain conclusions are almost always better than lectures and pointed statements.

Give your child the benefit of the doubt. There are probably some issues that your child simply isn’t comfortable discussing with you – if you think back to that age, remember the things you were uncomfortable discussing with your parents. Allow them to throw dirt over their tracks; don’t spend a lot of time trying to wheedle out something that makes them uncomfortable. Quite often, if you show yourself to be approachable and demonstrate that you’re being attentive, they’ll tell you many things anyway.

Check in – but not too often. Some parents believe that when the child is out the door, you should let them call you; others try to call multiple times a day and still micromanage their lives. The best balance is somewhere in between: give them space, but remind them that they’re loved and that they have support. My parents called a lot at first (I was the only person I knew at my college and I got very homesick), but as time went on, they scaled back slowly, to the point where I called them more than they called me.

Tomorrow, we’ll expand on that final point and look in detail at the process of cutting ties, financial and otherwise.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.