CHICAGO — Time's running short for parents of graduating high school students to impart financial wisdom as their kids prepare to head out the door for college or the real world.
I've been barking out periodic reminders to mine lately. Save 15 percent of everything you earn for retirement — and don't touch it! Embrace index funds! Chasing hot stocks is not investing!
OK, I may be getting a little ahead of myself. Most students won't make enough from part-time jobs in college to do more than help pay down tuition debt or pocket a little spending money. Serious saving and investing will have to come later.
What teenagers venturing out on their own really need to master first is money skills that may not have been fully tested under Mom and Dad's financial protectorate.
It's about to be sink-or-swim time for understanding budgeting and how to make a loan check, or one from the 'rents, last for a month or an entire semester.
Here is a list of basic financial tips for high school grads to follow:
The word alone scares off many adults as well as teenagers, but a budget is the best way to ensure discipline with your finances.
Start by estimating monthly expenditures for major categories such as school expenses, transportation, food, clothing and entertainment.
"Don't worry that it's going to be like filling out your taxes," says Laura Levine, executive director of the nonprofit JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, based in Washington, D.C. "It can really be done on just a piece of paper." Keep tabs on spending on an Excel spreadsheet, or through a personal finance management site such as Mint.com, which can send you text messages alerting you of bills due, credit limits and bank fees. Or just jot it down in a small notebook. Compare your records with any bank and credit card statements to make sure they're correct. Keep the budget current.
Find more budgeting tips and resources at FinAid.org or JumpStart.org
Credit card companies are no longer permitted to issue cards to applicants under age 21 without an adult co-signer or proof of adequate income. But even if you can get one, resist the temptation.
You can get by for now on a debit card or a prepaid card that your parents can put money on and track. And with a credit card you risk starting bad habits that can sink your credit score, make it harder to borrow money for a home and cloud your financial situation for years.
"If you can't pay for it with cash, you don't need it," says John Chladek, a certified financial planner in Overland Park, Kan. "Everyone makes the mistake of thinking they will just pay it off when they graduate and have a job, but the reality is that very rarely happens."
Debit cards are a handy way to manage your money. Your parents can put money in the account periodically, and the cards function almost like credit cards, with less risk.
But they have their pitfalls, too. You can incur penalty fees by overdrawing a debit card, just as with a checking account, so it's incumbent on you to keep track of your balance. Try to avoid fees for an ATM that's not part of your bank's network.
And be sure to pay all your bills on time or you'll be slapped with late charges.
If your parents co-signed for a credit card for you, read the fine print on the statement. Understand that not paying it off monthly can accrue significant interest and finance charges. Even a sale item might ultimately cost you much more than the full cost would have.
It may not be feasible to immediately meet that 15 percent goal I preach to my graduating high schooler Scott. But even a college student with a part-time job can save a small fraction of his or her pay. It's called paying yourself first — a maxim that will serve you well if you follow it throughout life.
Consider setting aside 10 percent of every check in a Roth Individual Retirement Account. The earnings will grow tax-free and the money can be used toward a first-time home purchase in the years ahead.
Treat financial and other data as top-secret information — losing it can cost you money, time and long-term grief.
Largely because of casual handling of such information, young people are the biggest targets among the estimated 10 million victims of identity theft in the U.S. each year. About 24 percent of consumers who filed identity-theft complaints in 2008 were in the 20-to-29 age group, according to the latest Federal Trade Commission data.
Protect banking statements, PIN numbers and other sensitive data. Change passwords frequently. Don't carry your Social Security card — memorize the number. And never give out your Social Security, bank account or credit-card numbers unless you know who needs them and why.
Just like happiness doesn't come from spending money, it sure won't come from letting someone siphon off your identity.