Skip to main content

By Dan Andrews

How does your family make money decisions? And more importantly, do your children and grandchildren feel like they can address financial subjects with you?

Money is a taboo subject which probably makes your family members uncomfortable. Common reminders on proper etiquette explain that you shouldn't discuss three topics with others: sex, politics and religion. Yet, money is so taboo that it isn't even brought up as a taboo.

According to an Acorns survey of over 3,000 respondents between the ages of 18 and 44, 68% of people would rather discuss their weight than their financial savings.

Yet, this same survey revealed other, more promising data: (and this is where you come in) For the No. 1 answer, 30% of respondents explained that they consult with family members and friends for personal finance education. Reading an article was the second-rated answer from 22% of the respondents, and the lowest ranked answer was reading a book at 10%.

So how do you provide a welcoming environment to handle these personal finance questions? To reference the above survey results, I hope you aren't giving your family members a personal finance book and then consider your family financially savvy.

The purpose of this article is to encourage you to continue acting as a guiding light for your family and to provide techniques and resources on how to discuss money with your multigenerational family.

Unite the Family

Before you discuss family money issues, remind people why your family is important. Simon Sinek explains in his popular TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, to "start with why." Sinek explains that effective leaders inspire others by reminding everyone why a task is important.

Take this same mindset into a planned family meeting. Before getting into the nitty-gritty details of money, encourage each family member to share why the family is important, what they appreciate about each individual family member, what the family stands for, and when has the family performed at its best in the past. These sample questions and topics allow people to focus on the better traits of the family versus getting caught up in emotional baggage.

You can go through these traits -- current and aspirational -- to craft a Family Mission Statement. This mantra can then guide your family on how to make unified future family decisions in life -- personal, professional and financial.

We recommend having a structured Family Meeting Agenda so people understand the purpose of the meeting, what subjects will be covered, and what you hope to accomplish.

I did this exercise with my own family and it was nice to have a step-by-step approach versus just winging it. And to give you an example of what our family accomplished during our Family Meeting Agenda, we crafted our Andrews Family Mission Statement:

"Our mission is to encourage and empower family members to live fulfilling, productive and interesting lives. We wish to leave the world a better place through our dedication to each other and our communities."

You can do what we did, and we all have our Andrews Family Mission Statement framed on our individual work desks thus giving us reminders on what our family stands for and why our family is important.

Communicate Financial Matters

You've brought the family together to discuss why the family is important. Now it's time to discuss money.

As said earlier, money is uncomfortable and you may need to lead by example with your family to bring these financial conversations to light. In regards to communicating financial matters, we'll explain two main areas to consider.

Be open and transparent. Many families squabble over assets. For example, Robin Williams' estate encountered a predicament regarding his famous Mork & Mindy rainbow suspenders. His third wife and his children legally fought over the item even though Williams prepared a detailed estate plan.

You won't be able to address every potential family heirloom, but you can encourage your family to discuss these matters. This way, you can facilitate conversations which may keep your family together instead of them becoming bitter at each other for how your estate is divided.

Communicate your intentions with your estate, ask questions about what items family members may want as family heirlooms, and encourage everyone to know the reason behind these wishes. If your family understands that part of your assets will go toward your favorite nonprofit, the family may not cause a fuss whenever the day comes.

By having your family all on the same page, you give the opportunity to financially save your family from future Probate costs which can eat away at your estate with ongoing legal fees. Also, if your estate does go through a lengthy probate process, it's important to remember that probate matters are public which may attract nosy neighbors or the media into your private lives. How do you think we know about Robin Williams' rainbow suspenders?

Provide relevant information. What good is a will if no one knows it exists? What good are advanced directives if no one knows where to find these documents?

Create lists of relevant information to make everyone's lives easier. Once you're either in the hospital, no longer mentally able, or have died, you won't be able to answer questions about important information. In these circumstances, emotions prove difficult, so prevent the burden of wild-goose-chases and provide information so your family can focus on their needs.

Communicate this important information in person, in writing, and/or in a shared digital folder in the cloud. With a shared digital folder, you can give permission to specific people to access the information within the folder. You can update files and add/omit items whenever needed.

This is not an exhaustive list of items to communicate to your family. These listed items are for you to start generating ideas and we also recommend discussing this subject with your estate attorney.

Tell others the locations of important documents for your estate plan.

This includes your will, living wills and advanced directives, insurance policies, trust documents, and other relevant documents.

Do you have any specific funeral and memorial wishes?

Have you already paid for a specific location and burial plot? Do you prefer a casket, cremation or a natural burial? Do you have a specific song you want played at your memorial? Do you want an item dedicated in your honor like a park bench, a scholarship fund, etc.? Communicate these items in a Personal Letter of Instruction to your family.

Who can your family contact whenever you're unable to answer questions? This is where you provide information about your trusted professionals, institutions and specific accounts.

A simple list is to have the contact information for where you keep your checking and saving accounts, your retirement and other brokerage accounts, health savings accounts, company benefits, insurance, etc.

Also include the contact information for your financial professionals such as your financial planner, certified public accountant, estate planning attorney, insurance representative, etc.

A relatively new wrinkle to estate planning is how to handle digital assets and accounts. Both Google and Facebook have policies on how to handle deceased persons' accounts and this estate planning arena will likely continue to evolve over time.

In your personal letter of instruction, you can add some line items about giving access to specific people to your accounts and how you want your online accounts handled. Be sure to have your user names and passwords stored in a secured location for the person who you permit to have access.

Be prepared that these instructions may not be legally binding but some documented instructions is better than nothing in this realm.

As you lead by example with your family by communicating this information, encourage your family members to do the same. Even if your family members are in high school or in their early adult years, nudge these family members to start these estate planning habits.

I've noticed through working with clients that a way to get children involved is to ask them about their treasured possessions as well as who will take care of the dog in case they're gone.

Nurture Your Family Money Conversations

Courtney Pullen explains in his book, "Intentional Wealth: How Families Build Legacies of Stewardship and Financial Health", that "miscommunication is the No. 1 reason for breakdowns in families; it is vital that skillful communication is emphasized again and again."

These money conversations aren't something to mark off your to-do list and never revisit. Family money discussions can become rituals around the holidays or to happen at another agreed upon timeline of your family's choice.

Alleviate the money taboo to foster a family culture where your family can openly communicate about this subject. All of us deal with money at every stage in life and you have wisdom to share. Share your great financial decisions as well as your blunders. Give your family the opportunity to see you share your financial habits so they can learn.

And be prepared to be surprised when you learn something from the younger generations about how to handle your own money matters better. Everyone benefits from this healthy money communication.

About the author: Dan Andrews is a Certified Financial Planner professional, the founder of Well-Rounded Success, an independent and fee-only financial planning firm and a member of the FPA of Colorado. Andrews guides many clients through financial literacy and personal growth programs which empower new adults to feel confident in their money lives.