When Joe Olivier asked what his niece wanted as a high school graduation present this year, she asked for a couple of thousand dollars in gift cards. She got a letter instead.
In that was a to-do list from her doting uncle: Read two books about personal finance that he had sent her, and write a one-page report on each. Then, take an online accounting course and pass its test. Once those tasks were done, only then would he open a checking account in her name and deposit some money.
I recently wrote about the value of preparing and passing along the money letter, in which a parent or other relative lays out some hard-won financial wisdom. I also asked readers to send in ones they’d written or read.
Feel free to borrow liberally from the following writers when it comes time to write your own letter:
Olivier turned to a letter because he worried that a big money talk would go in one ear and out the other. “The problem is that kids these days, you sit them down and start being a raconteur, and their eyes glaze over because their attention spans are that of a gnat,” he said.
Olivier, 55, acknowledged that he did get serious rather quickly when writing to his niece, who will attend the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Money and finances typically are wrapped up in a lot of emotions for everyone, and your views on these subjects have been shaped since you were born,” he wrote.
Why start there? Because one of the most common conflicts around money in families is scarcity. “Typically there is never enough,” he said in an interview this week. “The kids key in on that.”
And they do so long before they have much technical knowledge of how to manage money responsibly. Schooled in feelings before finance, is it any wonder they sometimes make emotional decisions about how much to borrow for college or what to spend once they get there and get out?
Olivier suggested that wizened grown-ups need to make the whole subject much more bloodless, long before writing any letters. “Try to be upfront with your kids about budgets and the financial situation in the family,” he said.
When his two sons left home for college, George Bohmfalk gave each of them a letter with some words of advice. Among them, were these: “Along with sex, money seems to get more people into trouble than everything else combined,” he wrote. “And both are great when handled properly.”
Bohmfalk also mentioned some related words to live by that a physician friend passed on to him many years ago: One spouse, one house. “So many of our friends had a beach house or a lake house or an airplane and a divorce or two,” he said. “Suddenly, they were having to work until they dropped.”
Bohmfalk, a former neurosurgeon who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, retired from the practice of medicine on his 50th birthday.
One other thing that sex and money have in common is that both tend to involve a certain amount of risk. Not that there is anything wrong with careful, considered financial bets. In most instances, in fact, risk is necessary.
“Investing always involves risk,” Greg Berman of Brooklyn wrote a few years ago to his two daughters, now 17 and 13. “It is basically a form of gambling. But it is also the only means of accumulating wealth other than by the sweat of your own labor.”
His family has successfully taken on real estate risk over the years, whether it was his relatives who were developers outside of Washington or the bet he and his wife made on a Manhattan apartment and then a Brooklyn house.
They’ve also bet on stocks. But they prefer the index funds that feel less like a spin of a roulette wheel than individual stocks do. Hannah Berman, Berman’s elder daughter, says he’s fond of telling a story about buying stock in Marvel, the comics company, as a young man. “He immediately lost everything,” she said.
ENVY (AND GENDER)
Envy is a problem, and Berman, who is 49 and runs a nonprofit, is clear on that in his letter. But he doesn’t default to the presumption that so many parents of teenagers do: That wanting things is itself somehow bad. “It is OK to want more,” he wrote. “Indeed, this impulse can be a spur to action and invention and success.”
Why put it that way? In an interview, he talked about all of the books and movies his daughters take in that make the case that money doesn’t matter. Money is the root of all evil! Marry for love! Chase your dreams!
But then much of the rest of the culture sends the exact opposite message. “I was trying to find the sweet spot that acknowledges the wisdom of both of those perspectives,” he said.
On a related note, his letter mentions his experience witnessing men aggressively negotiating raises over the years when women often did not. “It is OK to ask for a raise,” he wrote. “It is also OK to bargain over the price of many products.”
Wanting a bit more prestige or a bigger office has been a positive in many situations he had witnessed. “We want our kids to be ambitious and do stuff,” he told me.
Early in her career, Robin Hubbard, 59, made more money per month than her father ever had. She’s worked at a Fortune 500 company. But a series of health setbacks and the death of her husband have led to her living on – and with – much less.
When she saw last week’s column, she wrote the following to her 19-year-old daughter: “I encourage you to be a collector of adventures and making other people smile. I have found after the hardship of health problems, I do not want anything but the next great conversation or interesting experience.”