Due to COVID-19-related school closures, parents are stretched thin. And while it may not be possible to follow your child’s lesson plans to the letter, having your kids at home more than usual provides a chance to show them how you make day-to-day financial decisions.
The in-home isolation can be difficult. But games, activities, family competitions and even just honest conversations can impart crucial life skills kids will need as they get older and gain greater financial independence.
For younger kids, cash is king
Pocket change is a powerful learning tool. Even very young children can learn the name and appearance of each kind of coin. As they get older, they can begin putting combinations of coins together.
Michele Hansen of Arlington, Virginia, uses coins to teach her 6-year-old daughter.
“She emptied out our piggy bank of spare change and made a dollar with different combinations of coins,” she says. “We also did a little foreign exchange with coins left over from past trips. Using coins made it easy for her to visualize it.”
Turn shopping into a game
Even if you shop online now for meals or groceries, or leave your kids at home when you go to the supermarket, you can use the experience to teach budgeting and comparison shopping, while reinforcing math skills.
Deanna Hurn, founder of Miracle Math Coaching in Fairfield, California, recommends letting your kids pick a meal they want this week and having them create the shopping list. Set a budget and have them peruse your grocery store’s website. But don’t let them put items into a shopping cart and have the website do the math for them just yet — instead, ask them to write down each item and its price. Encourage them to compare brands and tell you why they’re picking one brand over the other. Once their list is complete, they can manually add up the total cost of all the items.
Your kids will learn how to identify the cost per unit, how to maximize a budget, and even how many items to buy to last a certain amount of time. If you have more than one child, have them compete to see who can come under budget by the highest margin. At the end, put all the items in the shopping cart and see what the final price is once taxes and delivery costs get factored in.
Ask kids for help with real-life problems
A few years ago, Hurn turned a too-high water bill into a budgeting lesson. She showed the bill to her children and explained the fixed costs (taxes and fees) and variable costs (water use). It led to a discussion about what actions they could all take to lower their water usage.
But it also introduced a lesson in identifying ways to save money. While your rent or mortgage payment may stay the same, you can try to reduce your electricity use by turning off lights when you’re not in the room, or your grocery bill by shopping carefully. “If you know what you can control and what you can’t control, you know how to budget,” Hurn says.
Let the conversations flow
Tell tales with financial lessons. James Philpot, associate professor of finance and director of the financial planning program at Missouri State University, is working on a program that uses Aesop’s Fables to teach kids about finances. “The Tortoise and the Hare,” for example, discusses the benefit of slow and steady saving, and staying the course for the long term.
Have kids interview relatives. Mary Ng, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, New York, assigns her students projects where they interview family members about their budgets and retirement savings. Not only is it a great excuse for a video call with family members your kids can’t visit right now, but it’s an exercise that provides perspective and empathy.
Talk with your high schooler about post-graduation plans. With so many industries taking a financial hit because of COVID-19, your teen may be second-guessing their career plans. “Look at the people who are still working. What kinds of jobs do they have?” Philpot says. “This is something your average teenager who is bound for college or technical training would want to think about. It plays really well into career selection.”
Be honest about your situation
“One important thing to remember is that kids are watching you when you think they aren’t,” Ng says. They can see if your bills pile up, they can hear if you fight about money. Being honest with kids in age-appropriate ways can provide reassurance when times are tough. You don’t have to be a money expert to be a positive example for your kids, either.
“It’s totally OK not to have the answers and to learn together,” Ng says. “It’s good for your kids to see that learning about finances can be a lifelong thing.”