MONEY Kids and Money

3 Ways To Help Your Kids Become Good Gift Givers

Cashew-caramel brownie in baking pan, elevated view
James Baigrie—Getty Images

Children spend a lot of time thinking about what they'll get for the holidays. Use these tips to turn them into givers too.

Ah, the holidays. The season for time-honored traditions like decorating the tree, lighting the menorah, wrapping gifts … and wondering whether you have raised the most selfish kid in the world.

Almost every parent has felt this at one time or another, as toddlers and teens obsess over accumulating more and more holiday stuff. Robin Gorman Newman is no different.

“Like any kid, my son loves to receive,” says Newman, mom to an 11-year-old in Long Island, N.Y, and founder of the organization Motherhood Later for moms over 35.

“They’re all obsessed with getting, especially when they’re younger,” Gorman says. “If you saw my basement, you would know what I’m talking about.”

Which is why Newman embarked on a campaign to shift her son’s mindset from getting to giving. First on the agenda: Baking brownies to bring to the local firehouse, and to families of sick kids staying at the local Ronald McDonald House.

For parents who are trying to encourage giving instead of getting, it can often feel like shouting into the wind, especially at this time of year. American adults are planning to splurge an average of $861 on gifts this holiday season, according to a new survey by American Research Group.

That’s up 8% in a single year, surpassing 2007 numbers for the first time since the recession hit. As a result, little Johnny and Janie can expect to rip the wrapping paper off more boxes over Christmas or Hanukkah.

But don’t despair. There may be hope for turning kids into givers.

According to data from Allowance Manager, a service that helps parents automate allowance payments and track their kids’ spending, many children are setting aside a surprisingly healthy amount for gift-giving.

Roughly 9% of allowances are allocated for gift purchases, a figure that spikes in November and December. And that does not even include charitable donations, which account for an additional 6% of allowance use.

The key question: How do you trigger that mental shift, to get kids thinking of others rather than just themselves?

Have Them Use Some of Their Own Money

Obviously, young children are not going to have a lot of financial resources to tap. But even if it involves very small amounts, have them use some of those resources for gifting.

It drills in the critical personal-finance habit of setting up different buckets for different purposes, one of which should be devoted to others.

“Handling money is best learned through first-hand experience,” says Dan Meader, CEO and co-founder of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.-based Allowance Manager, which has over 200,000 users. “So we think it’s important that kids get the chance to use some of their own money for gifts, instead of just using their parents’ money.”

Enforce Artificial Limits

Since we’re dealing with modest sums like allowances, you don’t want kids spending everything they have on holidays gifts, or feeling inadequate for not being able to purchase very much.

One elegant solution: Set a hard cap on how much can be spent, advises Ron Lieber, the “Your Money” columnist at the New York Times and author of the upcoming book The Opposite of Spoiled.

“See how may things you can buy for under $20, or figure out the most fun you can create for under $20,” he says. “If you put a cap on it that way, kids can be generous in spirit, without spending every cent they have.”

Set Up a Matching Program

To maximize your kids’ giving, consider what many charities do to supercharge donations: Create a matching program.

If your child saves $5 for family gifts, match it dollar-for-dollar, suggests Lieber. Then take it up a notch: If they save $10, contribute $1.50 for every dollar. If they reach $20, match each dollar with $2 of your own.

“That way it ratchets up, so the more generous they’re willing to be with their own funds, they will have exponentially more impact,” Lieber says.

Encourage Non-Monetary Gifting

There’s no rule that says more spending equals more thoughtfulness, despite what all those TV commercials might suggest. As every parent knows, some of the best gifts don’t come with any price tag at all.

But it may require some creativity. One idea from Lieber: A ‘coupon book’ of handwritten gift certificates that family members can give each other. “A dad might give a coupon to drop whatever he’s doing and play a game, or to ditch work once in the next 12 months and do whatever the kid wants to do,” he says.

“Things like that don’t cost anything, and are often incredibly memorable.”

Indeed, when Robin Gorman Newman looks around her house, her most cherished gift from her son wasn’t bought in a store at all. It’s an acrostic of the word ‘Mommy,’ with each letter standing for its own phrase such as “M is for Making Me Smile.”

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Newman says. “That’s worth a million bucks right there.”

MONEY financial advice

Tony Robbins Wants To Teach You To Be a Better Investor

Tony Robbins vists at SiriusXM Studios on November 18, 2014 in New York City.
Tony Robbins with his new book, Money: Master the Game. Robin Marchant—Getty Images

With his new book, the motivational guru is on a new mission: educate the average investor about the many pitfalls in the financial system.

It might seem odd taking serious financial advice from someone long associated with infomercials and fire walks.

Which perhaps is why Tony Robbins, one of America’s foremost motivational gurus and performance coaches, has loaded his new book Money: Master The Game with interviews from people like Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, investor Carl Icahn, Yale University endowment guru David Swensen, Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle, and hedge-fund manager Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates.

Robbins has a particularly close relationship with hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corporation.

“I really wanted to blow up some financial myths. What you don’t know will hurt you, and this book will arm you so you don’t get taken advantage of,” Robbins says.

One key takeaway from Robbins’ first book in 20 years: the “All-Weather” asset allocation he has needled out of Dalio, who is somewhat of a recluse. When back-tested, the investment mix lost money only six times over the past 40 years, with a maximum loss of 3.93% in a single year.

That “secret sauce,” by the way: 40% long-term U.S. bonds, 30% stocks, 15% intermediate U.S. bonds, 7.5% gold, and 7.5% commodities.

Tony’s Takes

For someone whose net worth is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars and who reigned on TV for years as a near-constant infomercial presence, Robbins—whose personality is so big it seemingly transcends his 6’7″ frame—obviously knows a thing or two about making money himself.

Here’s what you might not expect: The book is a surprisingly aggressive indictment of today’s financial system, which often acts as a machine devoted to enriching itself rather than enriching investors.

To wit, Robbins relishes in trashing the fictions that average investors have been sold over the years. For instance, the implicit promise of every active fund manager: “We’ll beat the market!”

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of active fund managers lag their benchmarks over extended periods—and it’s costing investors big time.

“Active managers might beat the market for a year or two, but not over the long-term, and long-term is what matters,” he says. “So you’re underperforming, and they look you in the eye and say they have your best interests in mind, and then charge you all these fees.

“The system is based on corporations trying to maximize profit, not maximizing benefit to the investor.”

Hold tight—there’s more: Fund fees are much higher than you likely realize, and are taking a heavy axe to your retirement prospects. The stated returns of your fund might not be what you’re actually seeing in your investment account, because of clever accounting.

Your broker might not have your best interests at heart. The 401(k) has fallen far short as the nation’s premier retirement vehicle. As for target-date funds, they aren’t the magic bullets they claim to be, with their own fees and questionable investment mixes.

Another of the book’s contrarian takes: Don’t dismiss annuities. They have acquired a bad rap in recent years, either for being stodgy investment vehicles that appeal to grandmothers, or for being products that sometimes put gigantic fees in brokers’ pockets.

But there’s no denying that one of investors’ primary fears in life is outlasting their money. With a well-chosen annuity, you can help allay that fear by creating a guaranteed lifetime income. When combined with Social Security, you then have two income streams to help prevent a penniless future.

Robbins’ core message: As a mom-and-pop investor, you’re being played. But at least you can recognize that fact, and use that knowledge to redirect your resources toward a more secure retirement.

“I don’t want people to be pawns in someone else’s game anymore,” he says. “I want them to be the chess players.”

MONEY Savings

Is Outliving Your Savings a Fate Worse Than Death?

Most people are worried about running short of cash in retirement, surveys show. But with a little planning, and a bit more saving, you can ease those anxieties.

When faced with the prospect of outliving their money, most people might toss and turn at night or obsess about where to slash their budgets.

Others have a more extreme reaction: wishing for early death.

“I can always put a bag over my head when the money runs out” was what Jeannine Hines’ husband told her when she asked what he planned to do if their cash ran out before they died.

“He would rather die than be left penniless,” says Hines, a 58-year-old piano teacher from Maryville, Tennessee.

Her husband has company. A new survey from Wells Fargo shows 22% of people say they would rather die early than not have enough cash to live comfortably in retirement.

Other surveys bear those numbers out. One by financial-services company Allianz of people in their late 40s found 77% worried more about outliving their money in retirement than death itself.

Of that survey’s respondents, those who are married with dependents are even more terrified, with 82% saying that running out of cash is a more chilling prospect than death.

“These are pretty sobering statistics,” says Joe Ready, director of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It speaks to the overwhelming stress people have about money.”

Financial planners like Rose Swanger of Advise Finance in Knoxville, Tennessee, hear about these extreme money fears all the time.

But Swanger says she does not believe people have an actual death wish; they just do not know what they will do if they outlive their cash. “So they get scared, and freeze up, and become irrational,” she says.

In one respect, collective despair is simply an acknowledgement of how much—or rather, how little—we are saving.

The Wells Fargo survey also discovered that 41% of those in their 50s are not putting anything aside for retirement, and 48% admit they will not have enough money to survive in their golden years.

Experts suggest taking a deep breath and refusing to let money fears overwhelm you. Social Security awaits in old age, and friends and family to help get you through lean times. And you can deploy multiple strategies to help prevent a penniless future.

SETTING GOALS

Instead of throwing up your hands, set a goal that is actually achievable

“Save a small amount, then a little more, and once it starts to add up, you will see your levels of stress and worry start to lower,” says Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the book “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.”

There are other ways to gain control of the situation.

“You may have to delay retirement by a couple of years, you may have to find ways to supplement your income, and you may have to reduce your standard of living both now and in retirement,” says Wells Fargo’s Ready. “All of those are ways of focusing on the reality of where you’re at, instead of just giving in to despair.”

But is this death wish that emerges in surveys really about us? Dig a little deeper into people’s anxieties about outliving their money, and you often find out it is all about the kids.

Parents feel like failures if they cannot leave an inheritance, and they certainly do not want to become financial burdens on their adult children.

“To a lot of people that’s a fate worse than dying,” says Norton.

So instead of worrying yourself into paralysis, let go of all that parental stress and anxiety.

You do not have to leave behind a huge estate; the kids will be fine. And if you have to lean on your family in old age? Hey, it is what humans have done for eons.

Our retirement challenges may be formidable, but they are certainly no reason to hope that death arrives any sooner than it has to.

More about retirement:

How much money will I need to save for retirement?

Can I afford to retire?

How should I invest my retirement money?

MONEY Budgeting

How to Keep Fantasy Football from Fouling Up Your Finances

Fantasy Football
How much does your weekend pastime cost you? iStock

Make sure your weekend hobby doesn't wreak havoc on your budget—or your marriage.

Allison Lodish used to be a huge football fan.

Her affection for the game evaporated when her husband got fixated on fantasy football, a leisure pursuit where participants draft their own dream teams and compete against each other, based on how those players fare.

Before she knew it, he was in three leagues of fantasy football. Then, it became 10. “It was crazy,” says the 41-year-old personal stylist from California’s Marin County.

Crazy not just in terms of time expended, but money. Since many fantasy leagues charge fees for entering, trading players, or picking up free agents, the sums involved can be substantial.

At the height of her husband’s involvement, the hobby was costing north of $1,000 a year, Lodish estimates.

Indeed, the fantasy game has plenty of fans, with more than 41 million players in North America, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. That’s up from 27 million in 2009, with the typical player dropping $111 a year on the hobby, and others, far more.

In an era of stagnant incomes and rising prices, it’s no wonder some spouses are alarmed by the amounts involved. The average player spends more than eight hours a week perfecting his or her team, the trade group says.

So, is there a fix for the obsession?

Experts say the first steps toward resolving familial conflicts around a fantasy sport involve turning off the TV for a few minutes and not obsessively checking statistics. Then, start working through marital differences that can easily spiral out of control.

“You have to figure out the crux of the problem,” says Sharon Epperson, CNBC’s personal finance correspondent and author of a financial advice book for couples, The Big Payoff. “It may be about the money, or it may have nothing to do with that. It may be the amount of time being spent away from the spouse or the children that is really annoying the other person.”

If a partner feels neglected, or the cash involved is being drawn from other family pots, that is a problem, says Matthew Berry, ESPN’s senior fantasy analyst and author of Fantasy Life, which chronicles the exploding interest in the field.

“Everything in moderation,” he says. “I don’t think fantasy football is different from any other couples issue. It’s about communication, and understanding what’s important to the other person.”

Here are some tips that may safeguard the family budget, or your marriage, from an unchecked fantasy-football fetish:

Family needs come first

“I don’t think spending money on fantasy sports is a bad thing—as long as you can afford it,” says Epperson, herself a devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fan who grew up watching greats like Franco Harris and Lynn Swann.

But if that cash is being siphoned from other critical needs, it’s a guaranteed recipe for marital discord. So before you sign up for multiple fantasy leagues, get your other bases covered.

Epperson’s advice: Stay current on all monthly bills, save 20% of your income in long-term vehicles like 401(k)s, and another 10% in short-terms savings like a household emergency fund. Then you can set aside 10% of income for “fun money”—and that’s where your fantasy-sports budget needs to come from.

Avoid secrets

Everyone likes to spend a little time and money on personal passions, whether it’s fantasy sports or designer shoes. And that’s okay – unless that information is being hidden from your significant other.

“It’s only a big deal if you are not telling your spouse,” says Epperson. “That’s like loading up a credit-card that your spouse doesn’t know about. That’s financial infidelity, and that’s a big problem in marriages.”

Involve your partner

If your spouse pushes back against your fantasy-football interest, take it as a compliment: They want to spend more time with you. So here’s an elegant solution: Get them involved, if you can.

“My advice is always, ‘Try it, you’ll love it,'” says ESPN’s Berry. “My wife now plays in my fantasy league. That way, Sunday becomes a day you can spend together, instead of apart.”

Hand over the winnings

If your spouse has zero interest in fantasy sports, here’s a novel approach: Pledge that any cash you win will go directly into their bank account.

“That’s what I did with my wife originally,” says Berry. “Whatever I won, she got to spend. So when I won my league, she got a brand new purse. It worked out great. Nowadays, if I’m falling behind in third place or something, she tells me to get it together and start studying up.”

Still, the outcome may not always be so collegial.

Allison Lodish eventually set up a website for fellow fantasy-sports “widows” and ended up splitting with her husband.

“It should be a fun game that brings people together,” she says. “But if it’s driving people apart, that is where you need to take a hard look at it.”

MONEY Budgeting

This Hangover Cure Will Make You Richer

People paying for drinks at bar
Do you know much money you waste by getting wasted? Roy Hsu—Getty Images

Okay, you may not want to give up drinking just to save a buck. But if you're having trouble trimming your budget, add up what you're spending on wine, beer, and liquor. You may find the numbers sobering.

Would you give up alcohol to help balance the family budget?

I posed that very question on social media recently. These were some of the answers I got:

“Yeah, right.”

“Gosh no – it’s what gets us through the week.”

“As if that would ever happen.”

And so on, in the same vein. Most responses ranged from sarcastic to outright incredulous.

But one other answer stood out, which got to the heart of the matter:

“I quit drinking – and it was like we won the lottery!”

And there’s the rub. We all tend to complain, in an era of stagnant incomes and rising prices, about how we just can’t make ends meet. There is just no place we could possibly find more savings.

But is that really true? Consider this: The average U.S. household spent $445 on wine, beer, and spirits in 2013, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounts to roughly 1% of our household expenditures, and it compares with an average household figure of $268 in 1993.

That is more than we spend on all nonalcoholic beverages combined, by the way. Keep in mind those averages include nondrinkers, too. That means some households are spending much, much more than that already-hefty average on alcohol.

So let’s be honest with ourselves. It is not always the case that we can’t squeeze any more savings out of our budgets. It is that we choose not to, because we just don’t want to give up the booze.

When New York City’s Jenna Hollenstein sat down one day and calculated what her drinking was costing her, she was shocked.

The 39-year-old dietician used to enjoy a nice bottle of wine or some gin after work, and it was starting to add up. “Even if it was only a $15 bottle of wine, three times a week, that was $45,” she remembers. “That’s $180 a month, or over $2,000 a year.

“That’s a significant amount of money—and that’s not even including going out for cocktails with friends.”

Hollenstein finally decided to give up her pricey habit, and even wrote a book on her experiences, Drinking to Distraction. But she is hardly alone in having a taste for a nip after work.

After all, 64% of American adults report drinking occasionally, according to Gallup’s most recent poll on consumption habits. Through boom times and bust, one of our most consistent national traits is that we enjoy our booze, and are not willing to give it up.

“We’ve been asking this question since the 1930s, and the numbers are remarkably constant,” says Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief. “Even in an era of huge demographic changes, the percentage of drinkers just doesn’t seem to budge.”

Our Beverage of Choice

Beer is America’s beverage of choice, by the way, followed by wine and then spirits. The average drinker enjoys a shade over four alcoholic beverages a week, according to the Gallup poll.

But 9% of people have more than eight drinks over the same period, and 5% of folks are guzzling more than 20. And that can get very expensive indeed—especially if you do your drinking in restaurants or bars with high markups.

We might not even realize how much we are spending on this habit, since it drips out in relatively small increments—a beer or two here, a carafe of wine there. Personal-finance expert Tiffany Aliche, author of The One Week Budget, suggests forcing yourself to do the math—just as Hollenstein did—before tossing back yet another nightcap.

“Let’s say you drink three nights a week and spend $30 each time,” she says. “That’s over $4,000 a year, or as much as a trip to Paris or Rome.”

It is not an all-or-nothing proposition, notes Aliche, who is not a drinker herself. You don’t have to become a teetotaler in order to realize massive savings. “Instead of drinking three times a week, just drink twice—and then go on your vacation, too,” she advises.

As for Hollenstein, who had a long and complex relationship with alcohol, she thought it was best to give up drinking altogether. She did not necessarily do it for the money—but when she did, she noticed that her finances changed overnight.

“As soon as I gave it up, the money thing became so clear,” she says. “Drinking was just a mindless, habitual thing I did on a daily basis. And I didn’t really notice it—until I got my credit card bill or looked at my bank account.”

MONEY Kids and Money

The Financial Challenges of Solo Parenting After 40

Single mother in her 40s at grocery store
Slobo—Getty Images

More single women over 40 are choosing to have children, a new study finds. Why taking on that cost on your own can be daunting.

Monica Kipiniak doesn’t think of herself as a statistic. She just thinks of herself as a doting mom.

The 46-year-old attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y. is indeed part of a societal trend: Single women by choice having kids past the age of 40.

“It used to be seen as such a radical thing,” says Kipiniak, mom to a 10-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. “But now it’s almost commonplace. If somebody’s not married by the age of 40, and they want children, they just go ahead and do it.”

Indeed, the numbers bear out her observations. Birth rates for unmarried women over 40 have been heading up in recent years, according to new data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control.

In fact, in 2012, the rate was a full 29% higher than just five years earlier.

The reason why that figure leaps out: In other age groups, the rate of births to unmarried women has been heading in the exact opposite direction.

“The gist of the report was that nonmarital childbearing has declined recently,” says Sally Curtin, a statistician and the report’s co-author. “For all women under age 35, rates are down.”

A Costly Endeavor

To be sure, ‘unmarried’ can mean a lot of different things. It can mean single and never-married, or divorced, or coupled and co-habiting but not yet hitched.

What is common to many over-40 single parents: the financial challenges involved.

“There’s no question that raising two kids by myself in New York City is a struggle,” says Kipiniak, who had children via anonymous sperm donor. “Often I’m flying by the seat of my pants, waiting at the end of the month for checks to come in.”

After all, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a middle-income family having a child in 2013 will lay out more than $240,000 before the kid turns 18. And that’s not even including college.

Such costs are obviously towering, even for married couples comprised of two earners. For single parents who are raising a child on their own, the challenges can be even more formidable.

Financial planner Carolyn Ozcan of Ithaka Financial Planning in Mattapoisett, Mass. helps many clients in this position and has tabulated some of the costs.

  • In-vitro fertilization, for moms who choose that route: $15,000 per cycle, sometimes requiring multiple cycles, which may or may not be covered by insurance.
  • Adoption: between $10,000 and $40,000.
  • Daycare or nannies, since working singles may not have partners to help cover childcare gaps: between $1,000 and $2,500 per month.

That means many single-mothers-by-choice are facing unique and significant costs right out of the gate. As a result, Ozcan says they need to be hyper-vigilant when it comes to planning and budgeting.

“A woman planning for single motherhood should have a sizable emergency fund,” Ozcan says. “I would recommend a year’s worth of living expenses, including childcare expenses in case of job loss or extended illness.”

Another tip from Ozcan: Secure disability insurance. It tends to be inexpensive if acquired through a workplace plan, and rather pricey for individuals ($200 to $500 per month), but well worth it in the long run.

“The worst nightmare is for the mother to get an illness or injury that prevents her from working,” Ozcan says. “If she could not work for years or ever again, she needs to have to have income protection to provide for herself and her child.”

What’s Behind the Numbers

So what’s behind the baby blitz among over-40 singles? A combination of medical advances and lessened social stigma of having a baby outside of marriage make middle-age childbearing more prevalent than in the past.

It’s also true that those who feel prepared for such a challenge are those who have been able to accumulate some financial resources, and are still in the prime of their careers.

“There is now less stigma overall linked with births outside of marriage,” says Jennifer Manlove, a senior research scientist at the Bethesda, Md.-based research center Child Trends.

“Nonmarital births are becoming increasingly normative,” Manlove says. “And some of the largest increases have been to the most advantaged women – older women, white women, and more educated women.”

Even pop culture has been helping to expand traditional images of motherhood, with boldface names like Sandra Bullock and Charlize Theron raising kids as single moms.

One key difference: Hollywood stars tend to have massive financial resources at their disposal. For regular folks like Monica Kipiniak, to achieve her dream of motherhood, it’s been much more of a financial hill to climb.

“But one of the great things about becoming an older mom is that you’re so grateful for it and love every moment,” Kipiniak says.

More on the cost of raising a child:

MONEY College

What Your College Kid Isn’t Telling You About Money

More than half of students admit they keep financial secrets from Mom and Dad, a new survey finds. And one of the biggest may be how much debt they're racking up.

It is an American rite of passage. Little Johnny finally grows up, goes off to college, and starts handling money on his own. He probably spends a little too much, and racks up some debt.

Does Johnny tell mom and dad the truth—or keep it a secret?

More than half of college students (55%) admit they hide information from dear old mom and dad about all that money they are spending, according to the 2014 RBC Student Finances Poll. But only 33% of parents realize that’s the case.

Another disconnect: While 90% of parents claim to be on top of how much debt their kid owes, just 78% of students agree their parents are up-to-speed on their finances.

Welcome to a college course that is not really on the curriculum, but that every student is grappling with. Call it Secrets and Lies 101.

“It may be that a student doesn’t have as much money as their peers, and is trying to keep up with what their friends are doing,” says Christine Schelhas-Miller, a retired faculty member at Cornell University and co-author of Don’t Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years.

“Or they may be getting lots of credit card offers, and naively sign up,” Schelhas-Miller adds. “Then they’re not sharing this information with parents, because they’re afraid of getting into trouble.”

Of course, money disconnects between parents and kids are nothing new. In fact they are par for the parenting course, whether they revolve around tooth fairy money or allowance sizes.

The difference when kids reach college is that the sums involved are taken to the next level. Serious money, which can, in turn, have very serious consequences, like debt accumulation or poor spending habits that could dog families for years to come.

After all, the average Class of 2014 graduate with student-loan debt is in hock to the tune of $33,000, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors, a site about planning and paying for college. That’s the highest number ever.

The potential scenario, for a college student whose only financial-planning experience has been with Monopoly money? A couple of adviser Darla Kashian’s clients were gobsmacked to find out that their kid—unbeknownst to them—had blown through a significant inheritance in his last years of college, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

“They didn’t know what he had done, and were astonished to find out,” says Kashian, who is an adviser with RBC in Minneapolis. “In their minds, he was using the inheritance to pay off his student loans, and now he was returning home with lots of debt. He was totally unprepared.”

Of course, students may suspect how badly they are screwing up financially. According to the RBC poll, 26% of college students admit they may be doing damage to their credit rating. Only 17% of parents think their little angels could possibly be doing such a thing.

Tough Talk

Such blind loyalty to one’s offspring isn’t cute; it’s actively harmful. But when it comes to such a delicate and emotional topic, many parents just don’t know where to start.

“It’s like the sex conversation: Parents are worried about how to even bring it up,” says Schelhas-Miller. “But they need to get over that hurdle, and think of it as a big part of their parenting responsibilities.”

Her advice: Arrange a pre-emptive strike, and have The Talk over the summer, before your kid even heads off to campus. Then arrange for regular money conversations throughout the school year—maybe once every couple of weeks, or maybe once a semester, depending on how responsible they are—to ensure budgets stay on track.

If you just avoid the subject and table the conversation for later, an unprepared college kid could stack up debt very quickly indeed, and it could be too late.

Kashian is a fan of online budgeting tools like Mint.com, a unit of Intuit, which can be set up to allow access to both parents and their kids. That, of course, requires plenty of trust from both sides.

“That way you can have real transparency, and open up a dialogue about the spending that is happening—instead of just shaming and screaming.”

More on student debt:

MONEY Financial Planning

The One Time Raiding Your Kid’s College Savings Makes Sense

Broken money jar
Normally, breaking into your college savings accounts is a no-no. Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

It's never a great idea, but in an emergency tapping funds earmarked for education beats sabotaging your retirement plans.

Lauren Greutman felt sick.

She and her husband Mark were about $40,000 in debt, and were having trouble paying their monthly bills. As recent homebuyers, the Syracuse, N.Y. couple were already underwater on their mortgage and getting by on one income as Lauren focused on being a stay-at-home mom.

“We were in a really bad financial position, and just didn’t have the money to make ends meet,” remembers Greutman, now 33 and a mom of four.

There was one pot of money just sitting there: their son’s college savings, about $6,500 at the time. That is when they had to make a tough decision.

“We had to pull money out of the account,” she says. “We thought long and hard about it and felt almost dishonest. But it was either leave it in there, or pay the mortgage and be able to eat.”

It is a quandary faced by parents in dire financial straits: Should you treat your kids’ college savings—often housed in so-called 529 plans—as a sacred lockbox, or as a ready source of funds that may be tapped when necessary.

Precise figures are not available, since those making 529-plan withdrawals do not have to tell administrators whether or not the funds are being used for qualified higher education expenses, according to the College Savings Plans Network. That is a matter between the account owner and the Internal Revenue Service.

TIAA-CREF, which administrates many 529 plans for states, estimates that between 10% to 20% of plan withdrawals are non-qualified and not being used for their intended purpose of covering educational expenses.

It is never a first option to draw college money down early, of course. Private four-year colleges cost an average of $30,094 in tuition and fees for 2013/14, according to the College Board. Since that number will presumably rise much more by the time your toddler graduates from high school, parents need to be stocking those financial cupboards rather than emptying them out.

Joe Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com, has a message for stressed-out parents: Don’t beat yourselves up about it.

“The plans were designed to give account owners flexible access to their funds,” Hurley says. “I imagine parents would feel some guilt. But I don’t think they should. After all, it is their money.”

Why the Alternative Might Be Worse

Keep in mind that there are often significant financial penalties involved. With non-qualified distributions from a 529 plan, in most cases you are looking at a 10% penalty on the earnings. Withdrawn earnings will also be treated as income on your tax return, and if you took a state tax deduction on the original investment, withdrawn contributions often count as income as well.

Not ideal, of course. But if your other option for emergency funds is to raid your own retirement accounts, tapping college savings is a last-ditch avenue to consider. That’s not only because you do not want to blow up your own nest egg, but because it could make relative sense tax-wise. And as the saying goes, you can borrow money for college, but not for retirement.

“If you think about it, a parent who has a choice between tapping the 529 and tapping a retirement account might be better off tapping the 529,” says James Kinney, a planner with Financial Pathway Advisors in Bridgewater, N.J.

If the account is comprised of 30% earnings, then only 30% would be subject to tax and penalty, Kinney explains. And that compares favorably to a premature distribution from a 401(k) or IRA, where 100% of the distribution will be subject to taxes plus a penalty.

Lauren Greutman’s story has a happy ending. She and her husband made a pledge to restock their son’s college savings as soon as they were financially able. It is a pledge they kept: Now eight-years-old, their son has a healthy $12,000 growing in his account.

She even runs a site about budgeting and frugal living at iamthatlady.com. Still, the wrenching decision to tap college savings certainly was not easy—especially since other family members had contributed to that account.

“We tried to take emotion out of it, even though we felt so bad,” Greutman says. “Since we didn’t have money for groceries at that point, we knew our family would understand.”

Related: 4 Reasons You Shouldn’t Be Saving for College Just Yet

MONEY health

Raising an Autistic Child: Coping With the Costs

A new study pegs the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism at $1.4 million. For parents, there are no easy solutions.

When Linda Mercier’s son Sam was around two years old, she knew something wasn’t right.

Sam was becoming withdrawn, not speaking or playing with other kids, and focused on specific tasks like lining up his toys. Eventually the mystery was solved: He was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD.

That was the beginning of a very long road, one that has involved significant time, effort — and money, plenty of it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars so far, Mercier estimates, on tutors, therapists and lost wages.

The good news: Same is now high-functioning, and in many respects a completely normal 13-year-old. The downside: The price tag to get to this point has been massive.

“Only a parent of a child with special needs can ever understand the struggles, and the financial commitment, of raising and recovering an autistic child,” says Mercier, a business owner from Winnipeg, Canada. “It’s an endless battle — and an expensive one.”

Indeed: A new study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics has pegged the total lifetime cost of supporting an individual with an ASD at an astonishing $1.4 million in the United States. If there is also intellectual disability, the total rises even more, to $2.4 million.

RELATED: Paying for My Special-Needs Child

Such costs typically include an ongoing mix of special education programs, medical care and lost wages. After all, many parents of autistic children reduce their work hours, or even quit their jobs altogether, to help their child full-time.

The study is the most recent to tabulate just how crushing these figures really are.

“I can believe it,” says Mercier, when told of the million-dollar-plus price tag. “Easy.”

Even the study’s lead author admits to being taken aback by the final number.

“I was really surprised,” said Dr. David Mandell, director of the Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research at the University of Pennsylvania. “The old estimates were from 8 or 9 years ago, and at first I was skeptical they needed updating.”

New studies are providing more current cost estimates. “What we found was shocking,” Mandell said. “This is a huge hit on families.”

Journalist Ron Suskind knows about that financial hit first-hand. His son Owen, now 23, was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum about 20 years ago, a journey Suskind has recounted in the book “Life, Animated.”

Owen has made remarkable strides, thanks to what Suskind calls “affinity therapy,” or tailoring treatment depending on the child’s particular way of understanding the world.

In Owen’s case, his preferred frame of reference is Disney movies. Using that template, Suskind and his wife got to work unlocking Owen’s full potential. But it did not come cheaply.

The organization Autism Speaks estimates that it takes around $60,000 a year to support someone with an ASD, Suskind says, adding that treatment for Owen cost about $90,000 a year.

“When we first got the diagnosis, the doctor asked me what I did for a living, and I said ‘newspaper reporter.’ He said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that. You know, private equity is a nice way to go.'”

MOVING FOR SERVICES

The costs are so prohibitive that many affected families actually pick up and move to states that offer a superior array of therapeutic services. Suskind calls it a “Grapes of Wrath”-style migration, of families ultimately headed for locales like New York or Massachusetts. (To choose the right place for your family, check out Autism Speaks’ state-by-state resource guide.)

There is also a measure before Congress that aims to mitigate the financial burden for families: So-called ABLE accounts would be patterned after 529 college-savings plans, but specifically geared toward those with disabilities. The tax-advantaged savings could be put toward expenses like education, housing, therapy and rehab.

RELATED: Paying for My Special-Needs Child

One piece of advice from Mandell: Don’t automatically think that you have to drop out of the workforce in order to manage your child’s case full-time.

It’s the natural human instinct to want to do so, of course. No one knows your child and his or her needs like you do, and navigating multiple layers of city, state and federal services can indeed be a full-time job.

But when one parent drops out of the workforce, just as out-of-pocket expenses start to mount up, “it can become very financially difficult,” Mandell says.

He urges families to take a long-term view of caregiving. “In some cases it might be better for the mother to stay in the workforce, and then hire additional support to provide case-management services,” he says.

For Linda Mercier, the towering costs hit her family budget every single day. It meant cutting back wherever possible, taking second jobs and foregoing trips to visit family. All well worth it, of course, since Sam has been such an inspiring success story.

But there’s no question that raising a child with an ASD is a sobering financial reality.

“I would tell other parents of special-needs children that there is hope,” says Mercier. “It can get a lot better, and it does. But it takes a whole lot of money to get there.”

RELATED: Paying for My Special-Needs Child

MONEY Kids and Money

The Secret To Raising Financially Independent Kids

What parents can do from the get-go to help their children prosper later in life.

It’s the secret fear of every American parent: failure to launch.

What if, despite your best efforts, your adult kids just aren’t able to sustain themselves financially?

The idea used to give Andy Byron the cold sweats. With a whopping five kids, the 57-year-old financial planner from Pleasanton, Calif. wanted no part of “delayed adults” hanging out in his basement well into their thirties.

So he and his wife turned their household into a virtual factory for churning out financially independent kids. The eldest girl, 29, is an English language teacher. The 26-year-old twin boys work for Apple and PricewaterhouseCoopers, respectively. Their 22-year-old son scored a paid summer internship with medical device manufacturer Stryker Corp, with an eye toward a career in medical sales.

The 19-year-old daughter, a college sophomore in the fall, is combining her studies with a paid summer internship and a part-time accounting job during the school year.

So what’s their secret sauce?

“Start early, be consistent, and make sure they know what their responsibilities are,” Byron says.

As soon as they were 16 or 17, the parents told their kids that they had to get jobs, and would be on their own after graduation. As a result, the three oldest are out of the house and get no more monthly cash from the bank of Mom and Dad; the younger two will follow suit soon.

While the Byron clan appears to have figured it all out, it’s no easy task to nudge kids from the nest. Among people in their 40s and 50s who have adult kids, a stunning 73% report lending financial help over the previous year, according to Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Are the successful launches of the 27% due to thoughtful, years-long projects to educate kids about handling finances? Or are they product of tough love, throwing adult kids into the deep end of the pool in order to force them to swim?

“They are more the result of financial education, and talking about money, which ranks right up there with sex as a taboo subject,” says Sally Koslow, author of the book Slouching Toward Adulthood.

For those with children who have yet to launch, there is plenty of time left on the clock. Here is how to prep kids for true financial independence, during college and the critical years that follow:

Do Your Part

If you don’t want your kids financially hanging on, do whatever you can to help them graduate from college debt-free. Seven out of 10 college grads last year had outstanding loans, at an average debt of $29,400, according to the advocacy group Project On Student Debt. To help them avoid indentured servitude, start saving as soon as they’re in swaddling clothes.

Andy Byron and his wife contributed at least $50 a month, and often much more, into 529 college-savings plans for each one of their five kids—”as soon as each child had a Social Security number,” he says.

Byron supplemented that aggressive strategy by “strongly suggesting” the kids go to public, in-state universities. The payoff: All the Byron grads have emerged from their college years free of student debt.

Related: How Much Do I Have to Save for College?

Draft a Wingman

The popular HBO series Girls was premised on a key event: Lena Dunham’s character getting financially cut off by her parents.

That can be excruciating for everyone involved, but necessary nonetheless. “Parents get so emotionally involved,” says Matt Curfman, a vice president with financial advisers Richmond Brothers in Jackson, Mich. “That’s why I tell them, ‘If you need me to jump in and help, even if I end up being the bad guy, I’m happy to do so.'”

It doesn’t have to be done in one fell swoop, Curfman notes. If your adult kid runs into financial trouble, write down a concrete plan to help with a certain amount of dollars for a certain number of months—”but that’s it.”

Become a Part-Time Professor

Kids get plenty of calculus and chemistry in high school and college, but personal finance? Not so much.

That’s where parents can make themselves a critical resource. For 24-year-old Annie-Rose Strasser, home instruction was what set her on the path to become the financially independent young adult she is now. Strasser has a full-time job as a journalist in Washington and lives in her own apartment. “I never learned personal finance when I was in school—401(k)s, saving, balancing a budget: I learned it all from my parents,” she says.

Paired with that informal home-study was the early expectation that Strasser would put herself to work as soon as she was able. A constant stream of it—at summer camps, at office jobs, at paid internships—helped set the table for her successful launch.

“My parents aren’t the kind of people who would say, ‘Go off and explore yourself,'” she laughs. “Instead, they put a lot of stock in the idea of finding a career, saving money—and being extremely financially responsible.”

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