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Money for Something: How to Keep ‘Entitlement Epidemic’ from Infecting Your Family Finances

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By Jonathan Burton

RISMEDIA, August 31, 2007–(MarketWatch)–At a time when the coolest electronic gadgets are branded with a self-centered “i,” it’s no wonder that so many kids and adults believe they’re entitled to the best, latest, hippest, greatest — and to have it first.

Fortunately for material girls and boys, discouraging words like “no” are seldom heard in families nowadays. So it shouldn’t be surprising when “iWhine” procures an iPhone or “iWant” produces an iPod.

Nathan Dungan, a financial adviser in Minneapolis, thinks he has an antidote to this so-called “entitlement epidemic” that he and like-minded financial experts, sociologists and psychologists see sweeping America.

Dungan is promoting a program he launched several years ago called “Share Save Spend,” an initiative aimed at changing how families think about money whether they’re wealthy or not. The goal: for parents and children to open up about what money means to them and to teach ways to use money without abusing it.

“Our habits and values can get out of alignment,” Dungan says. “We need to step back and make sure we don’t get defined by the hyperconsumer culture, and that the choices we’re making with our money are also about our values.”

Wanting it all now, materialism, and the popular notion that happiness can be bought, keeps people of all backgrounds and income levels from thinking realistically about money — and themselves. Dungan is encouraging them to reconnect.

“Spending is important, but what about sharing and saving?” Dungan asks. “If that’s important, do you want to make sure that’s embedded into your decisions?”

Dungan, 42, speaks quickly and earnestly, squeezing a stream of thoughts and opinions into conversation. His missionary zeal becomes clear when you learn that he’s the youngest of four children of a financial-services executive mother and a Lutheran pastor father who counseled people with chemical dependency.

“With the blessing of the money comes the curse of the money,” Dungan says, “and the lack of planning can have some really harmful effects.”

The harshest medicine to combat entitlement, of course, is a disciplined “no.” But it’s tough to deny others when we also overspend and live beyond our means. Refusing to buy junior a video game to teach a life lesson about money rings flat if you bring home a new set of golf clubs.

Indeed, perhaps the most lasting way to eradicate entitlement is showing gratitude. Appreciating what you have opens the door to more saving and sharing. In truth, this isn’t such a simple task, so to counter your family’s entitlement epidemic, or to keep the bug at bay, Dungan offers these tips:

1. Be smart shoppers

Stores are great classrooms for teaching about money.

Before you fill the cart, talk about how you got here in the first place, Dungan says. Relate an early memory about earning money. If you patronize businesses that are charitable or support community activities, point that out to your kids. In the check-out line, check out your purchases and make sure they reflect your values.

What if the mall is a family battleground? Suppose you’re facing full-court pestering to buy more stuff. Saying “yes” to kids — provided they use their own money — can be extremely effective.

Shift responsibility and accountability, Dungan says, and “the level of importance of that purchase drops exponentially.”

2. Money doesn’t make you

Society tells us how to dress, what to drive, where to go, who’s important and who isn’t.

The password? Money.

Being a conscientious consumer is fine to a point. It’s when money consumes you that petty behavior and anxiety surfaces. Dungan cites the research of Timothy Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., which shows that when people focus less on materialism and more on frugality and generosity, they’re happier and healthier.

Tell kids that what they have doesn’t define who they are, Dungan says. “It’s beyond saying ‘No,’” he adds. “It’s really about boundaries.”

Establish those boundaries by talking with your children, in as neutral a way as possible, about pressure to measure up to peers and feelings of inadequacy if they don’t. Ask why they want something so badly. Does it fill a void elsewhere? Be honest about your own flashes of envy and wishes for more.

Promote delayed gratification; it might make your kids happier. In a famous Stanford University experiment, preschool children were told they could have one marshmallow immediately or two if they waited. Patient kids developed greater self-esteem as adults.

3. ‘Share Save Spend’

Practically, Dungan’s “Share Save Spend” program divides household income between charity, investing and buying. For instance, many families, Dungan says, earmark 25% to sharing, 25% to savings, and 50% to spending.

On another level, “Share Save Spend” deals with much more than money.

“Share” isn’t just about charity and community service; it’s sharing within your family and placing the highest value on communication and honesty. “Save” teaches long-range thinking and drawing a road map to reach your goals. With those two supports firmly in place, “Spend” becomes more about people, places and experiences, and less about trophies.

“It’s not about perfection, it’s about periodic rebalancing,” Dungan says. “We talk about rebalancing portfolios. I also talk about rebalancing financial habits and values.”

Coming next week: More ways to untangle your family from entitlement.

Jonathan Burton is MarketWatch’s investments editor, based in San Francisco.

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