For 340 years until 1961, Thanksgiving celebrated the bill of goods the Pilgrims sold their Native American benefactors, the Wampanoags. For the 40 years since, though, Thanksgiving has celebrated the bill of goods that naive Americans are being sold starting the day after by the Walton greeter tribe. And if you joined the Friday, Nov. 29 Wal-mart pilgrimage, you'll be pleased to know that your added credit card debt has provided old Sam's heirs with this year's largest-ever Friday-after revenue haul.
Advertising to children and teens is driving much of that spending. Kids under 12 influence $200 billion annually in parents' spending, and teens influence an additional $150 billion while spending an equal amount of their own money. That makes this an ideal time to teach our children financial responsibility, and wean them from baby-boomer excess.
For starters, do most kids see the connection between a sometimes stretched standard of living and seeing less of their beeper-bonded parents, and would they want it if they understood it? Alan Greenspan may thank those parents for record-high productivity--how often have you worked 80 hours when your company paid your for 40?--but children might not be as thankful. The first round of late '80s affluenza-awareness didn't take, instead coinciding with an SUV boom that now sells more light trucks than cars to drivers who gladly buy three times as much gas for them, courtesy of prices stabilized by Gulf War I.
But facing Gulf War II, even if the oil remains flowing, our economic engine won't resume running on its '90s ephemeral cyber-power. And we've already burned the additive provided by the Sept. 11 patriotic-spending surge.
Of course, nobody wants to be Scrooge steering the holiday wheel, but isn't it time that we taught kids a modern version of the Christmas Carol, in which some of those salty characters from the Capital One commercials come to life as the debt ghosts of Christmas past? Even better, we can tell financial ghost stories on ourselves and script a movie our kids are sure to watch: Ghost Budget Busters. Unless we acknowledge our own mistakes, and show our kids how we've learned from them, we don't stand a chance of getting across a money-responsibility message.
I for one, have no choice but to take full responsibility for my mistakes--especially given the examples my parents set. My mom didn't shop til she dropped, she shopped until she'd dropped the price of things we needed as low as possible, at a time when gasoline to make a price-comparison trip to 10 stores cost much less than the amount she wound up saving. My dad has always worked until he dropped, doing real estate 24/7 with my mom after years of home repair moonlighting to supplement the insane hours he put in as a printing pressman. In helping my parents decide when to start taking Social Security, I was flabbergasted when the earnings statement revealed how they made such modest means stretch to comfortably raise me and my two younger sisters and never go into debt--although I recall several tense occasions that I now interpret as "more month than paycheck."
While I'll never match my mom's budget management skills and my dad's work ethic, they are both ingrained to the point that I take a "Meineke mentality" to the extreme (I'm not going to pay a lot for this muffler!) and spend too much time saving too little. Then I feel guilty because I'm not left with enough time to hustle for all the freelance jobs I think I should be doing, given my work-ethic gene. My wife, who dwarfs me in work ethic, is too busy being an incredibly productive corporate computer whiz whose efforts have fortunately been rewarded enough to subsidize my transition to becoming an ultimately rich and famous writer. So pity my three daughters, because it's their crazy Dad who has more time for the task of preaching financial responsibility; he's now plotting the use of serial e-mail austerity messages (think Burma Shave road signs) to save himself from the eye-rolling responses to lecturing.
But I persist, with a running dollar dialogue during TV commercials, hoping to plant an occasional saving idea while weeding out a few spending ones. So try it. Who knows, just as a billion here and a billion there means that pretty soon you're talking about real money, a little money talk here and a little family talk there might mean that your future holidays could be less about hugging greeters while spending, and more about greetings and hugs while spending quality family time.
Here are some tips my daughter Gibora, a high school senior, and I worked out to help parents teach their kids about money:
Start early and teach regularly. Begin when children start asking for things that cost money, and teach at every opportunity--especially when shopping and using credit cards and ATMs, and when paying bills.
Praise wise decisions. Parents are quick to tell kids they're wasting their money on something, but not quick to praise them for learning and intelligently exercising sound money-management principles.
Tie financial teaching to values teaching. Show how using money responsibly helps do good in the world.
Temper kids' expectations. Don't raise them to believe they can live even more indulgently than their parents do.
Use allowance as a teaching tool. Allowance should be kids' chance to make mistakes with money and eventually learn to use it more intelligently.
Learn more about money yourselves. Parents who don't understand how the economy works, how to financially evaluate the best loan terms, and similar things are not protecting their kids from the increasingly complex, highly predatory financial world that awaits them.
Involve kids in the family finances. Showing your kids the family money is not the same as leaving the bedroom door open during intimate moments. Parents should gradually make kids full members of the family financial team so they'll feel the principles they're learning will not only help them ultimately be successful, but that they're helping their families be successful.
Don't teach them your parents' bad habits. Although many of today's parents would do well to conduct financial matters the way their more frugal parents did, others grew up in financially dysfunctional families and must figure out what works for them in today's world so they can teach their kids to learn what will work for them in their adult futures.