It’s a situation financial planner Kelley Long sees time and time again: parents take on the financial rigors of a child’s special interests—travel sports teams, private music or art lessons, dance classes and competitions—and find that the hidden costs of the activity drive them deeper into debt.
In too deep?
Free counseling is available
If your financial situation has reached a crisis point, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling provides comprehensive money-management services, such as credit and debt counseling and debt-management planning, for free. Contact the NFCC at (800) 388-2227 or nfcc.org.
“Probably the biggest financial challenge I see parents face is lack of planning ahead for the cost of children’s activities, particularly travel expenses related to activities,” says Long, of KCL Financial Coaching, Chicago. “… They whip out the credit card and when the bill arrives, instead of trying to pay it off, they pay just the minimum.
“Before they know it, those expenses accumulate to the point where there is a comma in the figure. That’s when parents start to panic,” Long says.
It’s not uncommon for parents to find they are carrying a heavier financial burden than they ever could have anticipated, with little or no relief in sight.
Long, who provides financial coaching as an employee benefit for companies such as General Mills, says employees typically call her when their financial situation has reached a crisis point and they are considering a drastic solution, such as taking a loan against their 401(k) to pay down debt.
There are a number of reasons parents might suddenly find themselves facing financial difficulty, from unforeseen emergencies like a car breaking down to the rising cost of tuition—from preschool to college.
How can parents put themselves and their families back on solid financial footing when money and resources are stretched thin? Local and national personal finance experts offer the following strategies.
Involve the entire family in better money management
“Make a game out of it,” says Ron Lieber, “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times and author of The Opposite of Spoiled, a guide to teaching kids about money.
“For example, if you’re going on vacation and you’ve set a budget, you can put your kids in charge of certain aspects of that budget. If you have more than one kid, they can work together as a team and do research to determine the cost of various activities, figure out what the trade-offs are going to be when one activity is chosen over another, and make recommendations. They won’t complain about the outcome because they’re the ones making the decisions.”
Even a trip to the grocery store can become a game when you put kids in charge of looking for coupons or sales on favorite items.
A percentage of the savings—10 to 50 percent—could then be given to the child to reward his efforts. Showing children the bills for services such as cellphone coverage also is a good teaching tool. “Kids between the ages of 8 and 10 are not too young to understand what it costs to run a household,” Lieber says.
Set up an automated savings plan for extracurricular activities
Estimate the total amount you will spend on children’s activities—including travel, hotel and meal expenses—for the year and divide this amount by 12. Then, arrange for this amount to be moved from checking to savings once a month, Long says. As the expenses occur, draw from the savings account to cover them.
Be honest about the family’s financial situation with your kids
“Children are generally pretty well aware of parents’ anxiety levels and their anxiety levels around money in particular,” Lieber says. “They eavesdrop; they look at the papers you have lying around; they’re generally in your business.”
When parents aren’t honest with their children about money matters, trust suffers and the kids may not be as open to sharing their own fears with their parents.
For example, when parents face a job loss, “Their first instinct is to lie about it to their kids to spare their children from worry,” Lieber says. “That’s totally natural, and it’s a loving instinct, but it often backfires, because sooner or later, the child figures it out. Someone lets it slip, or the child overhears a conversation about what has happened. At that point, the trust you’ve built up with your child is lost because you’ve been hiding something very important from them.”
A better approach is to explain to your children that a job loss is normal—that it’s not uncommon for adults to face unemployment once in their career—and to provide reassurance that family members and friends will help, if needed. “Try to present a brave face,” Lieber says.
Plan a monthly “finance date” with your partner or spouse
“I’m a big fan of making a regular commitment with your spouse or partner to go over where you are, financially,” says Nancy Doyle of Glencoe, author of Manage Your Financial Life (manageyourfinanciallife.com).
“Those conversations can be difficult, but when it comes to managing your debt, studies show that when two people come together to make a decision and they offer different viewpoints, they will make a better decision together. My husband and I had these conversations when we were considering whether to buy a house, and we were shocked to find out how much we were spending on the kids’ activities.”
Talk about the “what ifs” with your spouse during these dates, Doyle advises. For example, is there a chance there will be a change in employment status or a reduction in the bonus your family has relied upon in the past? What are the adjustments you can make together, so your family will be better able to withstand the financial effect of such changes?
Size up your comfort level with managing options for repayment
“Consider your personality: Are you more of an analytical person, or do you really just want to set things on autopilot and get this debt taken care of? Your strategy will differ according to your personality,” Long says.
For example, an analytical person would typically be more comfortable seeking a balance transfer offer with zero interest for a set amount of time, dividing the amount of the balance by the number of months without interest, and either paying the debt before the zero-interest period ends or transferring the balance again before the promotional rate expires. A non-analytical person, on the other hand, may be more comfortable rounding all minimum payments up to the next hundred-dollar mark and paying that amount until the debt is paid.
“Once you’ve established the amount you will pay, automate the payment,” Long says.
Take a careful look at your cash flow
“Don’t just look at your income for the past year; take a comprehensive look at your financial picture,” Doyle says. “Look at your debt level: Did you increase your debt level over the past year? Look at your savings: Were you able to save more this past year than the year before? In a given year, if your debt increased more than the amount you were able to save, that means you spent more than you earned. When you spend less than you earned, that’s how you accumulate net worth.”
Analyzing your cash flow will help you gain a true picture of the level of financial difficulty your family finds itself in and the extent to which you need to make changes to regain solid footing.
Look for part-time or freelance work
“There’s got to be a way to earn more money—not by asking your boss for a raise, but by looking for other opportunities for work,” says financial planner Terry Savage of Chicago, author of The Savage Truth on Money. “Even if you work hard Monday through Friday, if you’re seriously in debt, you need to look at ways to boost your income. For example, you could contact a local sports organization and ask about paid opportunities for coaches or referees; you could work as a clerk in a retail store or as a waitress in a bar; you could drive an Uber. If you’re able to bring in $200 a weekend, that’s $800 a month. That may be just what you need to pay off a credit card balance in a very short time.”
As you get paid, target one debt to put the money toward, such as a single credit card. This will help you pay off a single debt quickly—and will give you the confidence you need to keep up your efforts.
“You have to face up to your debt or you’ll never get out of it,” Savage says.