Sex or money? Condoms or internal rate of return? Which of these highly charged topics and terms would you prefer (or prefer not) to talk to your kids about? I naively thought it was the sex talk until I started watching my husband interact with my four step-kids, aged 17 through 22. Here was a highly intelligent and educated finance professional who could easily talk condoms, girl doctors, and the ramifications of poor choices - but got completely tongue-tied when it came to money.
There were lots of questions and lessons to convey on both topics, but why was it easier to have a discussion about sexual choices or uncertainty versus "where did all the cash go?" "Why don't I trust you with your trust?" And "why don't you give money to charity?" Why was a box of condoms a standard "gift" but not a primer in personal finance?
In "The Road from Ruin," Matthew Bishop and Michael Green make the case that financial education is a cornerstone of positive change -- that we must prepare young people to be better consumers and critics of financial products and policies. I would suggest, however, that we as a society are much more prepared to talk, teach, and influence young people about sex than we are money.
First, there are lots of sex toys, but not many money toys. Think back to the first time your parents decided it was time for "the talk" or your teacher wrote "sex education" on the blackboard. Usually there was a book, a movie, or stories that helped them work through the conversation. At a minimum, there was some thing for you to keep and refer to so the education could continue even after the red-faced awkward adult left the room. With money, that isn't the case -- rarely do kids get a couple thousand dollars to try in the market, and I promise a piggy bank isn't nearly as interesting (or graphic) as a toy, a movie, or a book.
Second, communication is not so hard between the sheets, but when it comes to the topic of balance sheets, some of us are better communicators than others. When it comes to talking about preferences with your sexual partner, the definitions are pretty basic and we are encouraged to believe that "more is better." Not so with finance. The majority of finance-speak is in the language of "50 year old white male-speak" which makes it not so interesting and not so understandable to your average teen. Our media makes sexual empowerment cool, but financial empowerment decidedly less so. When was the last time you saw an Abercrombie & Fitch ad sending subliminal messages about fiscal responsibility? Our research shows that while young people tend to be really comfortable sharing information about sex, they are embarrassed to talk about money with their friends (especially if they have it and their friends don't).
Finally, we just don't know what we don't know. Let's face it, by the time we reach 40 most of us have had much more direct experience with sex than financial planning, budgeting and education. In a world where knowledge is power and experience builds confidence, should it surprise anyone that people are more vocal and engaged on topics they know and love than those they just don't understand?
So what can be done? Mostly, we need to start talking about money. Take it off the "taboo" list at the dinner table, in the classroom, and in the media. Next, we need to recognize that young people communicate in a whole new way (e.g. texting, Facebook, digital media). Thus, we need to teach financial principles in a tone and medium they can relate to. Make it engaging, not boring. At the end of the day, it's important to remember that the onus is on us to "teach our children well" -- about both sex AND money.