Most readers here at Get Rich Slowly have their own tale of a financial turnaround. Many of us were just plain dumb with money when we were younger, and it took us years (or decades!) to realize the error of our ways. But what if somebody had cared enough to intervene before we got into serious trouble?

Corinne wrote yesterday looking for help. She’d like to help steer her younger sister in the right direction before she has financial trouble. But how should she do it? What’s the best way to reach a teenager who doesn’t even know they’re financially irresponsible? Here’s Corinne’s question:

I come from a wonderful family, with parents who are great in many ways, but are also just terrible with money. Fortunately, I’ve managed to avoid following in my parents’ footsteps — I’m 25, with a well-paying job, and have started really organizing my finances well and planning for my future.

My younger sister, however, may not be so lucky. She’s 18, about to start college, and just couldn’t care less about being smart with money. I want to guide her and inspire her to learn about personal finance sooner rather than later because I wish someone had done that for me. Do you know of any personal finance books that would appeal to a teenager? Any thoughts on how to frame my advice so that it’s well-received?

This is a great question, especially for this time of year. And while I’d love to be able to say, “Go buy Your Money: The Missing Manual — that’s the best choice!”, I don’t actually think my book is good for a kid out of high school. (My book is good for folks who are serious about their finances, who are motivated to succeed. It doesn’t sound like Corinne’s sister qualifies.)

So what books about money are good for teenagers and young adults? Here are a few top choices:

  • I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi. My friend Ramit set out to write a money book for young people, and he succeeded admirably. Even if I had no idea who he was, this would be the first book I’d recommend for most students. Two drawbacks to note: Not everyone likes his tone and style, and the book doesn’t really address the psychology of spending. (Here’s my review.)
  • Debt is Slavery by Michael Mihalik. I raved about this book a few years ago. Of all the personal finance books I’ve read, I think this would have been most useful for me when I was in college. It’s not a comprehensive guide to IRAs and stocks and bonds; it’s a short treatise on how to take control of your financial life.
  • The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke by Suze Orman. This is a pretty comprehensive introduction to personal finance aimed specifically at young adults. There’s almost too much information.
  • Reality Check: The Student’s Guide to the Real World by Grant Baldwin. I haven’t read this book; the publisher sent me a copy, and I’ve leafed through it. It gets great reviews at Amazon.
  • Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties by Beth Kobliner. This book comes highly recommended, but I haven’t read it.

The second part of Corinne’s question is tricky. How can she give advice to her sister without angering her or making her turn away? I’ve found from my own experience (and from chatting with others) that it’s difficult to get somebody to heed your advice until they’re ready to hear it. They have to come to it on their own. In fact, it’s possible to alienate the person you’re trying to help if you come across as an evangelist. If you push personal-finance books on somebody, they may be offended.

Instead, I think it’s best to lead by example. If Corinne thinks her sister should change, she should subtly show her what smart personal finance looks like, and then contrast that with how her parents are doing. Or maybe Corinne could pick up a copy of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, read it, and then offer to pass it on when she’s finished.

Another smart technique is to think out loud in front of the person you’re trying to help. Say Corinne is buying a car, for example. Even though she may know perfectly well what she wants to do — buy a late-model used car with cash — she might approach her sister and say, “I’m not sure what to do.” If Corinne lays out her options and her thought process, asking her sister’s help, she might be able to help her sister see how she arrives at her eventual decision. (Please note that the car thing is hypothetical; it could be any other sort of financial dilemma.)

The key in these situations is finesse. You want to get your message across, but you want to do it from a position of equality, not superiority. And, if possible, you want to do this so that the other person “owns” the action. That’s how I’d approach it, anyhow.

Have you faced this situation in the past? How did you handle it? How do you think you’d handle it today? How would you try to talk about money with a teenager? What books would you recommend? How would you get them to even care?

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