You don't need me to tell you we're generally lousy role models for our kids, at least when it comes to fiscal responsibility.
Nearly a third of us haven't saved any of our annual income for retirement. About one in three adults carries credit card debt from month to month.
It's time to call in the experts to bring us back to our financial senses. We just need to wait until their school day is over to speak with them.
I recently asked four Twin Cities high school teens to talk with me about money. I wanted their take on the annual AIG and Junior Achievement Teens and Personal Finance Survey. The survey, released in April, suggests that their generation, known as Gen Z, is nervous about the future, and with good reason.
The survey revealed that teens worry about being able to pay for college (54 percent); finding a fulfilling and well-paying job (52 percent); not being able to own their own home (49 percent); not having skills to manage money (42 percent); and not having savings for an emergency (41 percent).
They've seen older millennials — many of whom are saddled with college debt and struggling to secure jobs — living at home again.
But what I heard from local Gen Zers surprised me, and left me relieved. The values of these teens, who have benefited from financial education through Junior Achievement programs in their schools, show that the future's in good hands, at least as far as they're concerned. Here's how they approach saving, spending and financing college.
Strive for scholarships
They understand the value of higher education, and also that acquiring long-term debt to pay for it isn't necessarily worth it. Many are looking at more affordable state schools, or are choosing only colleges and universities with generous scholarship aid and work-study options.
"Scholarships are a really good way to cut down on some of those costs," said Brandon Arneson, 17, a junior at Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis. Arneson benefited from parents who taught him early on to divide his money into three pots: spending (fun), sharing (donations) and saving for college.
Still, he said, "for a high school kid to come up with an extra $10,000 a year is a lot. Weigh your options and, unfortunately, price has to be a factor. I'm not too worried. College is what you make it. If you go to Harvard or Augsburg, it's not going to determine who you are in the long run."
Start saving early
Diana Zhu, a junior at Mounds View High School, said, "It's really important to start saving when you're young. It's good to have a time when you write down all your expenses. There are times when I don't do that and, 'Oh, shoot,' I don't have enough money to do what I want to do."
Therence Niyonkuru, 18, is a senior at Edison. One of 10 children, he knows the importance of watching his pennies. Still, he'll attend Hamline University in St. Paul in the fall to study international business, largely on scholarships, work study and minimal loans.
"Every time you spend, ask yourself, 'Is this really necessary?' " he said. "Sometimes you want the nice things, but you have to take care of priorities first."
Zhu said she'll be fine, "as long as I make enough money to be comfortable. It's really important to be happy about what I do for a living. I read stories, and hear from my parents and their friends, about people who choose a job they aren't super-interested in and end up being unhappy with their lives."
Ian Lim, a Maple Grove High School junior, agreed: "I could make a lot of money, but there's more to it than that, right? Creating value for others is a better return on investment for me."
Move home if you need to
Lim wants to travel the world before starting a family. And while he doesn't plan to move back home after college, he sees the benefits of doing so. "It would be a great way for me to reconnect with my family and save some money."
Arneson agrees. "If you move back in with your family today, it's more acceptable. If I end up having to live in my parents' house for a few years, there's less stigma. Well, not for a few years. But it's not the end of the world."
Talk about money
Zhu's six-person Junior Achievement team at Mounds View recently won a regional award for creating a 100 percent biodegradable shopping bag that dissolves in water. They'll advance to the national competition in June.
Arneson and Niyonkuru were on a team at Edison that created a web-based Vanguard Rewards Program to increase student engagement by rewarding socially positive effort.
Despite the impressive wisdom of these four teens, we adults aren't off the hook for talking with our kids about money. Another recent Junior Achievement study found that 84 percent of teens look to their parents for information and guidance on how to manage money. But more than a third of parents don't discuss money matters with them.
A robust and ongoing conversation about our values around money is as important as our regular talks about healthy sexuality and technology use. And we are having those conversations, right?
"Start a conversation," said Lori Dossett, spokeswoman for Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest.
"Instead of just saying, 'No, I can't buy you that iPad,' tell them the rationale, such as, 'Right now, our family has other expenses, or taxes are due, or it's not a great time right now, but that doesn't mean we're not doing well. Let's revisit this conversation in a couple of months.' "
And make sure they have skin in the game, she said, with something like, " 'Can you put aside a few dollars from your allowance to add to this?' Get the whole family in the conversation about a big purchase," she said, adding that ultimately the decision is up to the adults under the roof.
Those conversations can, and should, begin as early as kindergarten or first grade, she said, when kids begin to learn the difference between a want and a need.
That's something all of us should learn.
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