Q&A with personal finance journalist Ron Lieber

Ron Lieber, the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times since 2008, was prepared when his 7-year-old daughter asked him her first money question: Why don’t we have a basement? While Lieber said it took time to explain the nuances of living in an apartment in Brooklyn compared to a suburban house with a basement, he welcomed the chance to practice what he preaches.

In his recently released Times-bestselling book, “The Opposite of Spoiled,” Lieber set out to demystify the challenge parents face when speaking about money with children of all ages. He believes we should embrace the fact that kids are hyper-curious about money and it’s best to engage them honestly – about allowances and part-time jobs to greater issues of materialism, paying for college, and the general anxieties of comparing wealth and income.

But preparing youngsters has become more important than ever he contends: in part because teenagers are being asked to make major financial decisions (such as student loans) that will impact the rest of their life.

Before joining The New York Times, Lieber also wrote for The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Fast Company. He spoke about his new book last month at the Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth.

Q. Why write this book?

A. More than anything else, it’s a promise not just to talk to my daughter but to help all parents and kids do better in talking about money. We need to do it because teenagers are put in the driver’s seat of the most important financial decisions they will make in their lives. For many of them, they are making six-figure decisions about college.

Q. Why don’t or can’t we talk about money?

A. It may seem like a luxury for families to discuss this, but it’s important to realize the epidemic of silence we have about money. I think there’s a default decision that it’s not proper to talk about money or it comes off as money-grubbing. The best way to protect young people is to arm them with all the information they need.

Q. What was the genesis of the book?

A. Some of the best story ideas come from reader feedback. Around the time of Occupy Wall Street, I would get questions at talks I was giving and getting reader feedback on blog posts on the tough questions that kids ask about money.

I stumbled into and began to develop this idea during discussions about the virtues and characteristics that lead to the opposite of spoiled. I was asked to come back and talk again when I’d written a book about the topic. It took me six months to write an outline and a year to write the first draft.

Q. What’s become important to you?

A. I’ve changed my thinking about parenting in particular to this: Everything stops when my daughter asks a question. It’s their job to figure out the world and money is a source of incredible mystery and power. They are asking natural questions: Are we rich or are we poor? Why don’t we have a big house or why is that man on the street asking for money? As best as we can, we should give them age-appropriate answers.

Q. A series of your columns a few years ago focused on the student loan industry. How did that inform “The Opposite of Spoiled”?

A. I did not make the connection early on, but the fact is that adolescents are making really big decisions about where to go to college but they are not ready to make them. We know with the biology of brain science that their brains won’t fully mature until they are 23 or 24 years old. We’ve got it all backward, because the student loan industry is full of bad actors and kids are making decisions (and going into potentially heavy debt) without really knowing what’s going on.

I hold the schools way more than 50 percent responsible, but I do think that families need to be more prepared to wrestle and reckon with the large bills and price tags. This system of discounts, financial aid, federal work-study and the rest is so complicated that it’s a national embarrassment, a travesty. But it is what it is. 

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