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Your financial anxiety is contagious. Don’t infect your kids.

Financial fear.  You can feel it.   As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, people are as panicked about their checking account as they are about spiking a temp.   Widespread money stress is palpable.

Many families are finding themselves making a plan for living in the money margins, uncertain how long they won’t have extra white space on the page.  They just spent two months grocery budget on toilet paper, Purell, and canned goods and are jokingly talking to their friends about selling them on the Black Market. The psychologist in me knows that in every joke, there is a shred—or slice—of truth.

Sporting events are cancelled, but everyone is buzzing about Bears beating the Bulls.  What does this mean for retirement?  Maybe you can’t even start to process two decades down the line right now.  All you can think about is what happens if you can’t make your mortgage payment in May. In the face of potential unemployment or furlough, people are scrambling to pull an occupational audible.   Who and what is going to give if the paycheck stops?

To top it off, in a bizarre turn of events, you just got a new job for which you didn’t apply.  Congratulations!  You’re a homeschool teacher with no education degree.  As you stare perplexed at your teenager’s trig lesson you muse to yourself, “hmmm… is this a case of ‘those who can’t do teach?!’”  This thought is followed in quick succession by a mental statement that teachers are not paid nearly enough. 

Everyone is at home, enclosed in the same four walls, hopefully staying safe behind your front door (PSA:  STAY HOME!).

You have about a million things to think and feel about right now, but please carefully consider how you are talking about your finances in front of your children. There may be little that can be done to prevent little ears from overhearing your dining room-slash-boardroom Zoom call, but parents please beware what and how you are talking about money in your shared space during times like this.

Your economic anxiety has the potential to leave an indelible impact on your children far after we are on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.  My grandparents’ financial feelings, habits, and behaviors were informed by their childhood experiences of the Great Depression.   You have been influenced by how money was discussed (or not) in your home before you moved out on your own.  We are shaped our early financial histories.  Some spend a lifetime struggling to escape them.  

The current pandemic rocking the global economy will be a chapter in your child’s financial story.  Your littles probably won’t remember how the dow performed the day following the Ides of March this year.   They will remember if they worried about running out of things or had difficulty falling asleep due to fear about you losing your job.  Children pay attention and pick up on far more than we give them credit for noticing. 

What is your earliest money memory?  I bet it would probably surprise your parents. 

For many families, finances are fraught right now.   Fear around scarcity may be activated strong and deep within you as we wade through these wild and uncertain days.  It is not a comfortable place to be, and not an experience you likely want to share with your children.  Take measures to manage your own emotional experience.  It is your job to take steps shield and protect your child(ren) from financial anxiety. Not through silence about economic realities you are facing but instead through careful, thoughtful talk about money. 

I am a firm believer that in general, financial conversations with children don’t happen early or often enough. A lack of money skill building early in life can prove to be costly in the years that follow.   Keep talking about money, even when the conversations are hard ones.  Model how to have healthy money communication.  Ensure that these discussions occur in a boundaried manner.  You kiss in front of your kids (I hope.), but you don’t leave your bedroom door wide open for a show at night. It is important that you fitness your financial discourse to be developmentally-appropriate for your kids.  The last thing that we need to transmit to our offspring is financial trauma or anxiety. 

It is human nature to take responsibility for things that we actually have no power to influence.  We are increasingly prone to grasp at straws in this realm when things feel uncertain or helpless.  Taking ownership for outcome in these circumstances gives us, in some ways, a false sense of control.  It also, is a recipe for anxiety and, in some cases, guilt.  Children have even more difficulty differentiating what they can/cannot control than adults do.  Your eight-year-old son does not have the ability to go out and secure a five-figure income right now, therefore he can not meaningfully impact your family’s financial landscape.  He does not even have the power to buy groceries for a week.  He is not thinking about this when he overhears you say to your friend on Facetime, “I don’t know what I’m going to do!”  He is just frightened.  If you are sending clear signals of being intensely financially worried, his sense of safety and security may be shaken.  It is your job to be crystal clear  to your children that managing family finances is your role and responsibility as the adult in your home, not theirs.

Like many realities we currently face, how we choose to frame our situation holds tremendous power.  Money is no exception.  You have been presented with an opportunity to teach financial lessons and talk with your children about money that can create value and produce a lifetime of dividends. 

  1. Describe the basic options people have to move and use their money:  spend, save, give, invest.
  2. Explain spending.   Describe that different items at a store cost different amounts of money, and we have to make choices about how much of our money we want to part with at the time of purchase.. When you start to grocery shop as a family group again (the day will come), point out difference in prices and brands.  Talk about what ingredients and materials last longer (the large canister of oatmeal in your cupboard) and those that need to be replaced more rapidly (the 3-pack of Poptarts).  They cost the same price, but one will make more future breakfasts than the other
  3. Start a saving habit. Talk with them about the things that they would like to buy in the future.  The earlier your children can start to develop the muscle of delayed financial gratification, the better.  Help them grow accustomed to placing money aside for later as a regular practice.  Explain that they can choose to spend now, or they can wait and buy something bigger with more later. 
  4. Talk about the value of having an emergency fund.  Explain that one of the reasons it is wise to have an emergency fund is that we live in a world that can be somewhat uncertain.  You keep an umbrella in the closet because you don’t know exactly when there will be a rainy day.  For many people, it just started pouring outside.
  5. Teach budgeting. Talk about the benefits of deciding in advance how to spend the money you have so that you don’t run out before you have paid for the essentials.  Bring the math to their level. Have them come alongside of you and begin to develop their own small-scale budget with a little allotment of money for purchases as you assess and possibly develop or make changes to your own.
  6. Discuss debt.  You don’t have to disclose your numbers, but you can start by explaining what it means to borrow and introduce the concept of paying interest.  Typically, if you want to buy something you can’t afford and ask someone else for the money, they will want some extra money as a thank you when you are able to give it back in the future. 
  7. Introduce the basics of investing.  If you aren’t sure about the subject yourself, learn now.  Free resources abound and you may have newfound time.  Use it wisely.  The sooner in life your children understand the power of compound interest  working for them, the better. Your college freshman who is now back at home for the rest of the semester probably doesn’t have retirement top of mind.  Help put it on his or her radar. 
  8. Create career conversations.  Explain what income is and talk about ways people earn money.  Challenge your child to brainstorm creative ways he or she can start to work to create an income. If you don’t have the cash, someone else in your circle may be willing to buy a pet rock from your kid’s store or pay a small sum to have their car washed.  Even in a recession, people tend to be able to produce spare change for young entrepreneurial pursuits. Hire your young child with stickers (marbles, random objects of choice).  Let him or her buy something from you or earn a privilege or experience when they have accrued a certain number on a chart. The increased self-confidence  and mastery that these kind of experiences and experiments frequently foster are priceless.
  9. Demonstrate giving.   Your children will not forget watching how you chose to use what you currently have.  When you fear loss or not having enough in the future, it can be easy to feel a need to hold even more tightly to what is yours today.  There is something magical that happens, though, when we choose to share part of our current portion and cup – no matter the size of the dish.  Giving does something transformative internally.  It has potential to result in huge changes systemically.  Generosity tends to be contagious.  Now, more than ever, that is what we need to spread. 

Ask your current self what you wish you would have learned or been taught about money earlier in your life.  You have the opportunity to give your child a tremendous gift today if you craft money discussions that will serve to scaffold the skills that will set them up for a more stable financial future.


March 27, 2020

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