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How Parents Can Be Financial Role Models

Set a good example and find time to talk with your kids about money.

Forget the cherry blossoms. If it’s April, it must be financial literacy month, the time of year when we’re bombarded with studies that chronicle the sorry state of our kids’ financial knowledge. But the studies also show some interesting -- and often positive -- results. This year’s theme is the important role that parents play in teaching kids about money.

For instance, a Genworth survey found that adults ages 25 and over whose parents had set a good financial example were more likely to have a financial plan and feel confident about their financial future than respondents whose parents did not set a good example.

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In fact, a report from Fidelity Investments found that adult children often put their parents on a pedestal. In Fidelity’s Intra-Family Generational Finance Study, nearly half of children over 30 said their parents hadn’t made any financial mistakes. Parents, however, were quick to point to three key money flubs made by their adult children: racking up credit card debt, not saving for retirement early enough and not building up a large enough emergency fund.

I’ll wager that most of those parents don’t feel comfortable up on that pedestal because they know they’ve occasionally fallen off. And in criticizing their kids, parents were speaking from personal experience, trying to warn their offspring not to make the same mistakes that they had.

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Seize the opportunity. If you haven’t always done a good job of managing your own money, look at this as an opportunity. Sign up for your retirement plan at work if you haven’t already done so, or set up an automatic deposit from your paycheck to your vacation fund. Knowledge empowers you, so learn as much as you can about personal finance, starting with Kiplinger.com and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.

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Remember: No matter how little you think you know about money, you always know more than your kids. And as I wrote recently (see 4 Ways to Make Financial Literacy Work, a little knowledge goes a long way. You don’t have to take time out of your busy day to explain the Fed’s policy of quantitative easing. Instead, use everyday experiences to talk with your kids about how you make financial decisions -- which brand to buy at the grocery store, whether to purchase a new car or fix the old one, how you’re saving for a family trip to Disney World (and how they can pitch in), or how you’re setting money aside for your own retirement. Help them set up their own bank savings accounts (today’s low interest rates will be an instant lesson in quantitative easing).

Talk the talk. In the latest survey of parents and their kids ages 8 to 14 from T. Rowe Price, 73% of parents reported that they talk regularly with their children about money. But the conversations generally revolve around short-term financial topics, such as back-to-school shopping (62%), rather than long-term planning, such as family savings goals (39%). And 14% of parents discourage kids from talking about money altogether.

Don’t be shy. More than one-third of teens ages 14 to 18 think their parents don’t talk to them enough about money and budgeting, according to a poll by Junior Achievement USA and the Allstate Foundation. And it’s in your self-interest to start the conversation. Junior Achievement reports that one-fourth of teens think they won’t become financially independent until ages 25 to 27. And in the T. Rowe Price survey, more kids believe they’ll make a million bucks by becoming famous (24%) than by investing in stocks and bonds (21%). With those attitudes, they could be living in their old rooms for a long time.

Follow Janet's updates at Twitter.com/JanetBodnar.

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