I am definitely a glass is half-full kind of guy. In fact, it’s always been my nature to view the world very optimistically.

But after I read a survey that was published this week by the United States Automobile Association (USAA) – "High School Confidential: An Inside Look at Teens and Money" – I felt it was time to reconsider my eternal optimist mantra. To better understand the reasons behind my new self-doubt, I invite you to ponder a few of the findings from the survey:  

  • Teens – half of whom aren’t earning their own paycheck – are spending nearly as much in "fun money" every month as their parents.
  • One in five teens expects to earn $60,000 or more at their first full-time job after high school or college.
  • Nearly two-thirds of teens expect to be millionaires in their 40s or younger.
  • Forty-two percent of teens expect to retire by age 60.

Before you dismiss these findings as youthful naiveté, I would encourage you to proceed with caution. Financial habits start early, right along with financial expectations. And unless tended to on a regular basis, the weeds of distraction and over-hyped expectations will choke out the potential for developing healthy financial habits.

To fully understand my point, I encourage you to watch three shows on MTV: "Cribs," "My Super Sweet Sixteen" and "Pimp My Ride." Each is an excellent example of the culture fanning the flames of unrealistic expectations.
While I relish the opportunity to encourage young people to think big, I also believe adults need to help young people understand what it will take – financially speaking – to live in the "real world." Far too often unhealthy financial habits of teens are the welcome mat to financial difficulty in adulthood.

One other little nugget from the USAA survey – 86 percent of teens say their parents are more helpful than other sources in teaching them about money. But one-half of all parents confess their money management skills range from "OK" to "terrible."

Bottom line, the survey is one more reminder for parents to pay attention to the financial development of their children. If you default to the culture, the outcome may not be pretty.

Here are a few suggestions to help you fully leverage the role of money mentor:

  • Make sure your own financial habits are the ones you want them to replicate.
  • Set a date and time on the calendar – weekly is best – to have routine financial conversations.
  • Rotate who picks the topics for the discussion (e.g. saving for college, the importance of paying bills on time, living below your means, etc.)
  • Invite other relatives into the conversation when appropriate – more specifically grandparents who grew up pre-MTV.  
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sed author, award-winning speaker and national expert on family finances and the effects of mass marketing on young people. A top-performing financial advisor and vice president of marketing for a Fortune 500 financial services company, he founded Share-Save-Spend LLC, an organization that helps people of all ages develop and maintain healthy financial habits. His book, Prodigal Sons & Material Girls: How Not to Be Your Child’s ATM, was released in 2003 by publisher John Wiley & Sons. Nathan is vice-chair of both the National Institute on Media and the Family and Minneapolis-based YouthCARE boards. Visit www.sharesavespend.com, e-mail nathan@sharesavespend.com Copyright © 2005 Nathan Dungan. All rights reserved.

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