SALT LAKE CITY — Stephanie Barrett does not doubt that her son Andrew, 18, a recent high school grad, is mentally ready to leave the nest and move into the next phase of his life.
Financially, though, she's not so sure. And she's not just thinking about how much it costs to start a new household. She's also wondering if she and his dad, his teachers and other mentors have taught him all he needs to know to manage his own money well.
It's a question parents by the thousands are pondering as high school graduates head off to college and missions and jobs. Financial experts say the road to monetary independence is best conquered in baby steps. It takes practice and real-world experience.
"Usually what happens is a young person jumps in at all once and that gets him in trouble," said Will VanderToolen, director of counseling services for AAA Fair Credit Foundation. "Take little steps.,,, It's nice if they gradually, while at home, take over responsibility."
That may mean switching a car payment to the child's name alone, or making her pay for her own car insurance, he said. What's important is getting used to making a payment or two on time every month. "On time" is not necessarily a familiar concept to some teens, used to turning in homework late and having points docked. "In life, if you are not on time, it's going to damage your credit," VanderToolen said.
That raises the price of everything: higher interest rates, larger loan payments, more expensive insurance, even inability to rent an apartment. "You could get a great-paying job and still not be able to buy a car or move into the apartment you want."
With a year to go before her son Stewart graduates, Meredith Foster has recently started talking more about finances with him. This summer, he took the financial literacy class that Utah requires to graduate. "I think he has book knowledge of what he needs to know. The common sense knowledge of what you need to know, unfortunately, is one of those life lessons that some of us learn easier than others," she said.
"My best hope is that she understands that she doesn't spend more than she has," said Sheila Dixon of her daughter, Audrey, another recent graduate. "She hasn't really had to worry about paying for things on her own, so I am a little concerned about it."
Andrew Barrett has been asking about things he didn't learn in the finance class, like how to build a good credit rating. "They didn't have much debt and I grew up learning that debt is bad," he said. Now he has to learn to use at least some debt wisely. But his parents' example will stick with him, he said. "They talked about money as I was growing up."
His friend Tad Fullmer admits that he's ready to take over his own finances in theory, but handling money well will "just come with time." This summer, he got a job, opened a debit account and is going over finances with his parents. He plans to go to college in the fall, then on a mission for the LDS Church, then back to college. He hopes to put most of the money he earns into savings, since he's living at home. "The most worrisome thing is if the paycheck will cover what I'm paying for."
Experts suggest setting up a system to organize bills so you never miss a payment. Since kids tend to love technology, electronic prompts in Google calendar or on a cell phone may work best.
Debt and credit are subjects that scare parents as they send their children out into the world.
Carla Hughes' hopes and worries for daughter Karina's future are identical: "Debt and debt and pretty much debt. I hope she avoids that.... She might go out and spend more at the grocery store than she should, but she's not going to go out and buy a new dress because she's in need of a pick-me-up. Still, she might nickel and dime herself to death." Most kids, she noted, have "no idea how fast it adds up."
Aside from some initial help, Karina will be responsible for most of her own expenses. "She's taken out student loans and has a scholarship. But she will have to get a job and get her own rent and food and gas," Carla Hughes said.
Karina graduated in Tooele and has already moved to a student apartment in Orem. She's job-hunting. "What worries me is just money in general. It scares me I will have this to pay and that to pay and must make sure I have food. Those are things kids don't think about. It's an awakening. Milk costs money."
"The thing is learning to use the money for what you need instead of spending on your want," said Paul Fullmer, Tad's dad.
The Fullmers require their children to pay for classes, show up and pass them. When that happens, they reimburse tuition and book costs. Tad also benefited from earning a personal management merit badge in Scouts, his dad said. Still, it has been "the theoretical view. We've tried to model that you pay for what you get.... You don't carry debt. Live within your means."
Buying on credit can start an adult life with a "debt load that requires you to work pretty heavily," VanderToolen warned.
Glenn and Stephanie Barrett pay cash when they need a car. Andrew hopes to stay out of debt, too. He has scholarships, his mom said. "But it's hard to know what else he will need or how to plan for it. And I hope we've also taught him to rely on the Lord a lot. He can help so much."
VanderToolen recommends opening a checking account around age 16. A key is always checking the bank statement to be sure it's right. And young adults must know how to forecast what their expenses will be for the next month.
Most, when they were younger, had to ask for permission to buy something. So some will be seduced by instant credit and the ability to make their own decisions without asking anyone. Self-control may not be the dominant feature, he warned.
He recommends youths get an account with a debit card, but no line of credit for overdrafts. If they don't have enough money for something, the transaction should be denied. Another common pitfall is an "opportunity" to co-sign a friend's loan. "If the individual doesn't qualify for credit on their own, there's a reason. If you co-sign, you are 100 percent liable."
Sheila Dixon knows Audrey is smart and will ask for help if she needs it. And she's not the type to get in financial trouble trying to keep up with her peers. "She has a good head on her shoulders and knows what she wants."
And what she wants, the young woman says, is to start out on the right foot financially and figure things out. She's heading to college at Utah Valley University. Last week, she got an apartment that she'll have to pay for; she has roommates, which helps. She got a full-tuition scholarship, but must buy her own books. Right now, she works as a nanny. "I don't know if I'm exactly ready to enter the big world. It's been overwhelming to me the past couple of weeks realizing how much I have to take on by myself as I become an adult, But I'm excited for it," she said. "It will be tough, but my parents will help me figure it out."
Jorie Eldredge, a Pleasant Grove graduate, will make her first car payment next month and is searching for an apartment. She is fluent in American Sign Language and has landed a job that pays quite well as an ASL interpreter.
What worries her are the bills like groceries and utilities, where costs might fluctuate. She plans to find a roommate to share expenses.
"I've never budgeted really," she said. "I do put most of my money in savings, with 10 percent for tithing and about 15 percent for spending, so I have no plans to take out loans. I just need enough money to take care of books and my car payment and living situation. Being debt-free is my goal and, right now, it seems realistic."
Becoming financially savvy takes some training. Experts like AAA Fair Credit Foundation's Will VanderToolen suggest allowing youths to shop: "Here's your money, here's the list," he said. "We need all of it and that's all you can spend." If one comes back with a tiny bottle of ketchup and huge back of potato chips, talk about the choices.
WalletPop goes over the basics for college students with advice that includes always setting aside at least a little for savings, building an emergency fund, tracking spending and living within your means.
Among other advice:
— Credit cards are not an additional source of income. But used wisely, they are a good tool for establishing credit, according to Curtis Arnold of CardRatings.com.
— Remember that credit cards geared to those without much credit experience often carry high interest rates and less-than-favorable terms. If you need one, be selective. VanderToolen suggests starting with a "secured" credit card. You secure it with money equal to the credit line while you show you can pay on time and handle it wisely.
— Don't co-sign friends' loans.
— Keep your banking and bill-paying costs down. FDIC Consumer News recommends opening a "basic, low-cost checking account" and then be sure not to overdraw it, which racks up high fees. Some phone apps let you track what come sin and goes out. You can also set up alerts for when your balance drops to a certain level.
— Carry only the cards you expect to need right away. Don't leave your birth certificate, Social Security card or credit and debit cards where others can get them.
— Got a roommate? Stacy Rapacon of Kiplinger.com says you can avoid major money battles by paying your share of expenses on time and agreeing in advance on such things as whether you'll share food, how clean is clean enough, how hot or cold the residence should be and who can use which space in the place.
Here are three websites that can help.