Talking money in tough times

Attitude is important when conveying messages about finances to kids

When Tony Marcin, a sprinkler fitter for fire protection systems, was laid off from his job of 12 years in 2009, he and wife Kate didn't stress about how to discuss their leaner financial situation with the kids (Sam, now 8, and Joe, 6). "Being in the trades, things have always been cyclical, and the boys were pretty young at the time. So it never really occurred to us to have a big talk with them," says Kate.

But when Gov. Scott Walker announced his plans requiring state workers to pay more toward their health care and pensions last year, Kate, a medical technologist with UW Hospital, realized that the family would need to dial up their already pronounced sense of frugality and that the kids would need to be part of the discussion.

"These changes certainly took the convenience out of our lives, and the boys notice," says Kate. "Clipping coupons and shopping at Goodwill are now second nature to the whole family."

According to Connie Kilmark, a Madison-area financial advisor who specializes in the intersection of money and emotion, it's important for parents to keep calm when talking to kids about lifestyle changes due to job loss or a decrease in take-home pay.

"We never worry about how we are going to talk to the kids about a salary increase, but it was never written anywhere that things are going to get better," says Kilmark. "Kids will pick up on any insecurity. If you freak, they'll freak. If you have a sense of doom, they'll fill in the details. You need to manage yourself first."

Once parents have their bearings straight, Kilmark suggests they do a good inventory of what is going to need to shift in household spending and then share the plan without being overly apologetic.

"If a family is going to stop cable as a tactic," she says, "they shouldn't describe it as a loss, because it's not. It's only a change. A lot of good can come out of a game night in place of the Disney Channel, but the parents need to feel it first."

The Marcins have been able to see some benefit for the family in these tight times. "We used to go out for ice cream with some regularity. Now, ice cream parlor trips are only for birthdays," says Tony. "It makes the treat really seem like a treat. And a birthday party used to include the whole class. Now, each boy can invite one friend to do something special to celebrate. In many ways it's been nice, much less chaotic and more intimate."

For Mark Lilleleht, a single dad who serves as the outreach coordinator for Global Studies at UW-Madison, it's been really important that his middle-school-aged son realize that even with his leaner income they are still doing okay. "Sure, I'm now taking home less than I did in 2005, but my kid knows that he's still pretty lucky. We just need to be more careful.

"One thing we've done to make the new financial situation more tolerable is to turn our frugality into a game. My son's always been pretty environmentally conscious, and that has been a great way to frame the cutbacks."

From the classic turning off of the lights, to seeing how low they can set the thermostat, Lilleleht and his son are often in competition to see who can be the most "green" to save some green.

"This year we had a contest to see how far we could go into the season without turning on the heat," says Lilleleht. "I broke down first and only made it to Nov. 11. As a kid, there is not really much you can do to help offset the situation. This was one clear way he could really contribute."

Whether it is doing a better job of cleaning their rooms or, for older kids, starting dinner, Kilmark agrees it is extremely important for kids to do concrete things to help. "Kids will want to do something to seal the seams of the family's boat. And it's important to let them do so in age-appropriate ways."

She also feels strongly that kids are reassured they have "enough" if they see some of the family's income given away. "A time of financial realignment is a great chance to give kids a voice in the philanthropy of the family. You can use this time to celebrate 'enoughness.'"

For adults who are feeling apprehensive about money, it can be a good time to volunteer, with the family, by serving a meal or doing a shelter overnight. "You need to be careful who you compare yourself to," says Kilmark. "You don't want your kids to feel competitive. You want them to see the context - their comparative well-being."

This message was brought home for Kate Marcin and her kids right before the holidays this past year. Upon leaving the grocery store they encountered a woman living in her car in the parking lot who was desperate for gas money. Kate and the kids helped out with a little cash.

"I think they realized that morning that we are fortunate," says Kate. "And we are."

"My dad was in construction, and there were always financial ups and downs," says Tony. "This is really nothing new for me. Growing up he always said, 'Right now we need to be careful.' And I find myself using the same phrase a lot now. Because 'right now' leaves room for hope."

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