This Season, Give the Gift of Good Financial Habits

Christmas ornaments (U.S. Army/Renee Rhodes)

'Tis the season for gift-giving. Take a moment and reflect upon all the gifts you've received over the years. What sticks out?

I tried to do that and really struggled. It's kind of sad. With nearly a half century of gift-giving memory bank to draw from, the one gift -- other than the Hot Wheels race track Santa set up for me in our living room -- that I can clearly recall was my high school graduation present: a fine leather briefcase with an envelope of cold, hard cash tucked neatly inside. Clearly, my parents knew then that I was destined to be a financial planner.

I crunched the numbers, and if I had simply put that cash in a hypothetical investment in the S&P 500 index, today I would have around $6,000! I didn't, of course, but that's a story I've already shared with my kids: how to make a great gift a very impactful gift.

Speaking of impact, the following six financial gifts could make a real difference for your kids:

1. Help them buck the student loan debt trend. Student loan debt is, rightfully, a hot topic. And while I don't have a macro-level solution, you can do your part to help your kids graduate from college without a heavy burden of student loan debt. The Defense Department delayed implementation of its plan to limit the transferability of post-9/11 GI bill benefits to service members with fewer than 16 years. If you're eligible and plan on transferring benefits, do it today. Beyond those benefits, skipping toys and instead contributing to a 529 college savings plan could help create an education fund to forestall loans. Anything you save represents debt your kids won't carry.

2. Start their investment game. Earlier, I played the "what if" game with my graduation gift. Wouldn't it be much cooler if, in the distant future, your kids told a "look what my parents began" story related to how you jump-started their interest in investments. For younger kids, this might mean a piggy bank that kicks off a lifelong savings habit. Older kids might like owning shares in one of their favorite companies.

3. Introduce your kids to Mr. Roth. If your children report income from their efforts, part-time work or odd jobs, they could be eligible to make a Roth IRA contribution to the extent of that income. Think about it: At 8%, $1,000 into a 16-year-old's Roth IRA could grow to more than $50,000 at age 66. Talk about putting time on your kid's side. Unlike the many gifts I've forgotten over the years, this would be a gift your kids will remember right into their own golden years.

4. The promise of a matching contribution. Delayed gratification is a tough sell. If your financial situation allows, you can soften the blow by sweetening the deal. Offer up free money to encourage your kids to save and invest -- as opposed to buying something now -- with a matching contribution. My parents did it for me, we did it for our kids, and maybe it will work for your family.

5. Become the teacher. We hold an influential place in our kids' world. And even though at times it may not seem to be the case, they value our input. Don't miss out on the opportunity to give the gift of time. In this case, time spent with your kids to promote and encourage good financial habits. If you're not sure where to start, check out the FDIC Money Smart program. It offers lessons for kids of all ages.

6. Let them borrow the lawnmower. They might not see this as an exciting gift or even a financial gift, but if you transport them to the job site where they can earn additional money (of which you will highly encourage them to put a portion in their new Roth IRA!), they might be more appreciative. As a young teenager, I mowed lawns, and until the time that I had my own driver's license, my mom carted me around our neighborhood (whether I wanted to or not!). Beyond money, I learned about reliability, work ethic and getting it done.

Many of these gifts don't come with a big price tag, but they hold the promise of an outcome we all value: a better future for our kids.

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