3 Questions About Money Your Parents Don’t Know the Answers To

published Nov 12, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Like going to the dentist or getting a flu shot, having serious conversations about money with family isn’t comfortable (nor does it necessarily get easier with age). But being transparent about finances with loved ones is a necessity. Research shows that transparency about money is way more beneficial than not; for example, it can lead to equal pay in the workplace or lessen feelings of loneliness and guilt that often surround debt. But talking about money to family may be different than talking about money to co-workers or partners.

Michelle Jackson, a money expert and the founder of Michelle is Money Hungry, says there’s a number of reasons why these conversations can be so intimidating; it just depends on the context and how the family members in question perceive their role. “If we’re younger and having money talks, there may be pressure for parents to be more knowledgeable about money than [their children] are,” Jackson tells Apartment Therapy. “If we’re older having these conversations, it could be that we are better off financially than our parents, or, if we’re expressing a frustration about money the parent may feel attacked by that frustration.” As she notes, there are three areas of conversation that tend to be more stressful than others: Debt, money management, and generational wealth. 

The fact of the matter is, money touches everything. It shapes every decision from where people live to what job they apply for to even when and how to start a family. Being on the same page about finances is an essential building block for a shared life. “My motto is this, ‘Just because a conversation is uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s not worth having,” Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez, a money expert and the founder of Statement Cards, says. “By talking about the things you want to achieve, you can open up a door to a conversation about how to make those goals happen. And since money already touches everything, especially big, expensive goals, it can become a natural part of the conversation.”

“How can I get out of debt?”

According to CNBC, the average American has $90,460 in debt (though this number varies by age). Whether it be student loans or credit card debt, it is actually more common for the everyday consumer to be more in debt than out of it. However, it can still lead to uncomfortable conversations, given the myth that debt is an individual failing versus to a societal flaw often rooted in inequality. Understandably, the topic of debt can be a touchy area. 

O’Connell says one way to broach that conversation in a way that might feel more palatable is by addressing it through an emotional lens rather than a strictly financial lens. In other words: Try focusing on how you feel more than the hard numbers at first. “’I’m feeling really anxious about my student loans or consumer debt’ can provide a less daunting entry point to the conversation than diving right into the numbers,” she says. 

Addressing debt with an action-oriented approach can also lessen the burden of the individual, O’Connell advises. “In addition to framing conversations through the framework of emotions, another thing you can do when revealing something like debt to a family member is solicit their thoughts and advice,” she says. “If you’re approaching it through the framework of something you’re struggling with emotionally but working to address, it may lead to a more empathetic and productive response.”

“How do I ask for financial advice from parents who don’t have a good history with money?”

Talking about money to family members who haven’t had the access to long term financial help can be hard, but not uncommon. Generational wealth, and financial literacy as a whole, is a privilege that hasn’t always been readily available to everyone. Acknowledging this gap may go a long way in understanding your family’s money habits. “Many parents may have worked long-term for a company and may not have strategically changed jobs for job growth,” says Jackson. “It’s not unusual for many individuals to be intimidated by the process of investing income for long-term growth. There are also parents who’ve never invested because these weren’t tools or resources available to them.” 

This frequently affects marginalized communities, such as communities of color and immigrant communities, for reasons spanning from institutionalized racism to the English language barrier. Thankfully, there are more programs available now to bridge that educational gap: Take Care America, The Financial Diet, and NerdWallet are all free resources with general advice to get your conversations started.

To contextualize the conversation around family finances, O’Connell recommends building it into topics that may seem more manageable. “To this day I have trouble engaging my mother in conversations around wills and estate planning,” she says. “So when I talk about somewhat related subjects with her, typically in reference to my work, I always try to slip in something about how wills or estate planning played into or affected the situation at hand.”

“By talking about the things you want to achieve—for example, to purchase a home, to be able to pay for your children’s and grandchildren’s college education, or create a foundation for a cause you care about—you can open up a door to a conversation about how to make those goals happen,” she adds. “And since money already touches everything, especially big, expensive goals, it can become a natural part of the conversation.”

“How can we build good money habits together?”

No one wants to be blindsided with conversations about habit, so it’s natural if people tend to get a little defensive when money management (whether it be budgeting, investing, or paying off loans) is brought up. But if you’re struggling to talk to your family about either your money behavior or even theirs, Jackson recommends “talking about the talk” and setting a premise for the conversation before it happens. 

“Ask questions specific to a financial story or situation that your parents may be sharing with you,” she suggests. For example: If there’s a story in the news relating to money, you can use that as a jumping off point to bring up your own personal choices and thoughts. The topic of student debt was a major concern among voters during the 2020 presidential election, and you could bring up potential policies as a way to open a discussion on how to best manage educational loans as a family. 

Jackson also suggests having a conversation about the conversation. “Another approach is to bring up the fact that you’re interested in having financial conversations and ask if they’re interested in having these conversations with you,” she says. “Frame these conversations with the intent to learn versus putting anyone in the position to defend their financial decisions.”

O’Connell says if you’re having trouble getting through to a family member, sometimes it’s best to look to a third party like a financial planner who can provide professional, unbiased guidance. “I once had a father ask me how to get his daughter to sign a prenup,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m not sure she’s going to hear it if it comes from you, but if she hears a podcast or an tv interview of someone like me, who she might identify with, talking about how and why I got my prenup, that might serve as a more accessible entry point to the dialogue.”

Ultimately, no matter the approach or topic, talking about money as a family can serve to bring individuals together under a common umbrella or goal. It’s a conversation better had sooner than later and if nothing else, the more you do it, the more experience you’ll have under your belt at having these discussions with loved ones.