The Unexpected!

At 18 years of age, I had already owned my first car for two years. Growing up in Texas, most individuals needed a car, and families often bought one for their teens to avoid scheduling snafus. I was in my first year of college and had always been adept at managing my money so as to never find myself in financial difficulty. Yes, I was a bit of a tightwad! But it served me well in terms of having money when I needed it.

One morning I went out to start the car, turned the key and … nothing. Not even a click. Oh no, I thought to myself. I’m going to have to get someone to jump start it. (I think most of you know what this means, but if you don’t it involves another car that’s running, and cables to link between the two batteries so that the non-functioning car gets a little “juice” from the one that’s running.) Anyway, I did what most teens do – I called my dad. Who was angry -- furious, actually. He assumed I had left the door ajar or some such thing which would drain the battery overnight. He gave me the number of a garage and a mechanic was dispatched.

The mechanic arrived, jumper cables in hand, opened the hood of my car, took one look and said, “Honey, you don’t need me. You need a battery.” Yes, that’s right, someone had STOLEN the battery out of my car during the night. I held back my tears until after he left, but then they flowed freely. This was a huge expense for me. One that I had not counted on. AND my dad was angry AND I couldn’t even get to my part-time job that day.

Thirty-plus years later, I don’t remember how I resolved the money crisis that day. What I DO remember however, is the lesson I learned: “Expect the unexpected.” From that day on, I always had money saved for any unforeseen expenses that might occur.

At only 16 years of age, my son hasn’t yet experienced “the unexpected.” We’ve talked about it, of course. I’ve told him my story and others like it. But the truth is, until he experiences it himself my stories and lessons in this regard are, to him, more fantasy than reality. Teens live in an almost perpetually invincible state of mind, believing that the things about which they hear won’t happen to them.

That’s not to say we should stop telling our stories as well as the morals that accompany them. In fact, the more we have continuing dialogues with our teens about “the unexpected” – whether it’s in relation to money, or sex, or drugs – the more seeds we plant. As their brains develop, and as they make choices, those small seeds begin to come to life. Something in the back of their mind says, “Huh, I’ve heard that before,” or “Hmm, maybe I should wait on that: not sure why, but ‘something’ tells me I should think about it a while longer.” Sometimes even a small hesitation in the moment of making a decision saves them from taking a hazardous risk.

In addition to telling our stories, when our teenagers do encounter the unexpected it’s important to resist rescuing them. My dad could have swooped in to save the day, leaving his job and bringing cables over to jump the car himself. He could have been the one to open the hood, discover the missing battery, run to the auto parts store, pay for the missing part, and hire someone to install it. But he didn’t. This, frankly, was not something I appreciated in the moment but understand and value now.

If my dad had bailed me out, I would have learned a very different lesson from the one I did. I would have come away believing that someone would be there to save me if I had a financial crisis. And that’s simply not the truth about life. Creating a financially literate teen and young adult also means creating a self-reliant and resourceful one. As your teenager encounters the unexpected in life, it’s ok to lend an empathetic ear. It’s also ok to arrange with your teen to loan him money – as long as it’s a loan with a plan to pay you back that you, and he, will stick to. But never lose sight of your goal: to create a financially savvy, capable, responsible and independent person. And that goal means allowing your teen to experience the consequences of their mistakes without rescuing them.

Want to talk to your kid about money? Take advantage of the upcoming “National Money Talk Night” on September 16, 2010!

Please note that Julie Ross is being compensated by American Express for these blog posts and that any opinions expressed are entirely her own.