Talking to your kids about wealth: How & when to begin
I recently attended my college reunion. Not only did I enjoy connecting with old friends, but there was the added bonus of spending quality time with my daughter who’s a freshman at my alma mater. She’s acclimating well to life on her own, yet I couldn’t help but think I still have so much I want to teach her. As she continues her journey to independence, these lessons run the gamut—from having a growth mindset to owning her power to managing her finances.
In my role as a client executive in Vanguard Flagship Select Services®, our high-net-worth business, I talk with many parents who also want to instill lessons of financial responsibility in their children. But having a discussion about family wealth can be an uncomfortable one. So a question I often get is, How and when should I talk to my children about money?
If you’ve had the same question, you’re not alone. And the answer can depend on your family’s dynamics and circumstances.
However, through our professional research and experience working with families, we’ve found that often the best course of action is to start communicating sooner rather than later. To help initiate and simplify the education process, we recommend setting up a framework for a series of conversations at the right stages.
Dispelling the myth
You may believe the myth that if you talk to your family about money, you have to start by revealing the family’s balance sheet. We disagree. In fact, providing that level of transparency may feel a bit overwhelming. You may also be concerned that it will have unforeseen consequences on your children’s lives.
Instead, remember to remain flexible and keep it simple. Speaking with your children about financial topics that are age-appropriate can be a helpful way of framing these discussions. Plus, you’ll be able to gauge your children’s reactions and maturity levels. If you follow this approach, you can reveal the dollar values and list of assets later.
Here are some topics I use when I’m consulting with families:
Learning the basics(ages 5–18)
Focus on heritage and family traditions.
Introduce the concept of “spend, save, give.”
Assign chores to instill the value of hard work.
Applying concepts(college years)
Provide experiences to understand assets vs. liabilities.
Teach budgeting and saving.
Understand financial concepts such as investment principles.
Expanding their scope(mid- to late 20s)
Provide deeper education on investing, family businesses, and real estate.
Understand charitable giving options such as donor-advised funds and foundations.
Begin to hold family meetings to discuss these topics and to assess everyone’s understanding.
Mentoring & understanding the whole picture (30s)
Do a deep dive into concepts such as wills, trusts, and mortgages.
Understand the financial institutions involved in the broader family picture.
Provide activities to focus on the transfer of leadership from parents to the next generation.
Preparing for leadership transition(40s & beyond)
Discuss the wealth transfer process and wealth purpose for the family.
Integrate estate planning discussions with multiple generations.
Decide on and communicate future plans, including how assets will be divided (e.g., to family members, charities, or both).
Values—not dollars—are what truly matter
While you’re educating your family about money, we recommend that you also come to an agreement on your family values. Frankly, we believe this is good advice no matter how much money you have. All you need is a safe and comfortable environment where everyone can explore ideas and share what they’d like to be known and remembered for as a family. This can be an incredibly powerful learning experience for the next generation, as it can help them understand the meaning of “family wealth.” In other words: It’s not what a family owns, but the values that are most important to them that truly matter.
We believe that the sooner you begin these discussions and teachings, the easier it will be to create aligned family values for the future. However, if you haven’t started this process yet, it’s not too late. You can start now. I’m continuing to pass on lessons I’ve learned to my daughter, and in doing so, I’m recognizing that it’s the journey—not the destination—that matters.
And likewise, it’s your family’s journey and values that can help preserve your wealth and keep your family together for generations to come.