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Responding to Uncomfortable Questions About Money

The Toughest Questions: How to Respond to Money Queries that Make You Uncomfortable or Leave You Tongue-Tied
Of course, just knowing why you have difficulty engaging in these conversations isn't the only thing you need. Invariably, kids ask certain types of questions that irritate and discombobulate most parents. If you're like most moms and dads, you'll ignore the questions or respond negatively or angrily. Here are some of the tough questions you've probably already encountered:
  • "How much money do you make?"
  • "How much money do we have in the bank?"
  • "How much is our house worth?"
  • "Why won't you buy a __________ for me?"
  • "Why can't I buy a toy gun? I have the money."
  • "Why are you so cheap? You never get me anything! I hate you!"
  • "Mom and Dad, I've maxed out my credit card. Can I have some money to pay for what I want to buy?"
These questions are on-ramps toward productive—albeit sometimes difficult—discussions. Let's look at these questions and the best ways to respond to them.

"Are We Rich?" "How Much Money Do You Make?" and Other Dollar-Specific Questions
Parents are often taken aback by dollar-specific questions. They are afraid that their child will share this private information with others or will feel superior or inferior to other kids. While it's possible that this might happen, it's not a reason to ignore or dismiss the questions; behind them are often legitimate fears and concerns.

For example, Christina, age seven, asked her parents whether they were rich, and when they asked her why she wanted to know, she explained that one of her classmates had said that her father had lost his job and they were going to have to move. "If we're rich," Christina told her parents, "we won't have to move if Daddy loses his job."

Bruce and Diane recently bought a new home. One Sunday morning they were reading the newspaper and their fourteen-year-old son, Ethan, asked, "How much did this house cost?" They looked up and saw that Ethan was holding the real estate section of the local newspaper. Bruce asked Ethan why he was interested and received the typical adolescent response: "Because I want to know." Instead of getting irked, Bruce and Diane treated the question as a teachable time. They told him the purchase price, adding that there were other houses in the neighborhood that cost more and others that cost less, and then engaged him in a discussion of what makes a house a home—how a house is a reflection of the attitudes and actions of the people who live in it, and that the biggest house in the world is worthless if people are rude to each other or don't respect each other. They ended the conversation by reminding him that certain subjects, such as family finances, should stay within the family and not be discussed with others.

Bruce and Diane are financially intelligent parents, and they handled this situation skillfully for two reasons. First, they used a question to engage Ethan in conversation. Responding to a difficult question with a question of your own—rather than a pronouncement—often increases your child's willingness to both talk and listen. Second, they expanded the discussion from money to values. Bruce and Diane used Ethan's curiosity about the value of their house to create a teachable moment where they were able to talk about the intangibles that make up a home: love, caring for one another, sharing responsibilities and so on. By pointing out that there were other houses in the neighborhood that cost less and others that cost more, they were able to talk about the need to keep money in perspective and not to use it as a measure of self-worth. If you learn to treat money only as a scorecard, they told him, you will always be disappointed. Unless you are Bill Gates, there will always be someone with more money than you.

Some of you may be horrified that Bruce and Diane told Ethan how much their home cost. Consider, though, the alternative of not saying anything: instilling anxiety through excessive money secrecy. Think about how this anxiety can affect your child's development. We have worked with financial advisers who tell us that they have clients who are so secretive about their money that they won't reveal their net worth to them; it's like refusing to tell a doctor about your overall physical condition. If your words and your behavior teach that money is a subject to be kept secret, your child may grow into an adult whose money anxiety may cause him to distrust his spouse, much less his financial adviser.

Finally, overcome your reluctance to discuss dollar-specific questions by reminding yourself that your kids probably know more about your finances than you think they do. We live in the information age. You would be amazed, or perhaps aghast, to discover that your kids can find general answers to many dollar-specific questions on the Internet. For example, a few minutes on www.hotjobs.com discloses that the average income of an experienced advertising agency account executive in Fort Wayne, Indiana, ranges from seventy-three thousand to eighty-nine thousand dollars a year, while an experienced tool and die maker in Detroit makes an average of fifty-five thousand to sixty-one thousand dollars per year. In Ethan's case, the real estate section of the local newspaper gave him the asking price for houses in the neighborhood. Refusing to answer Ethan's question when he already had an idea of the range of values would simply tell him that Bruce and Diane were either excessively secretive about money or that they didn't trust him.



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More on: Family Finances

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From The Financially Intelligent Parent by Eileen Gallo, Ph.D. and Jon Gallo, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005 by Jon Gallo and Eileen Gallo. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, visit Amazon.


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