Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow.

Six messages to reassure kids when COVID-19 hits your family financially

Getty Images

The pandemic affects everyone — even cats and dogs that are clearly surprised at the change in routine.

Younger children might not understand everything that's going on, and older ones might realize life has changed but not know how to get clarity from their parents.

The current situation is different from anything anyone's experienced in our lifetime, says Wendy Mays, 49, who has a podcast on financial independence for families.

And kids know it.

More from Invest in You:
Nail your financial goals the way an Olympic medalist does 
Panic shopping and fleeing to cash seem to go hand in hand
How to prepare for a family member with COVID-19

The clues are everywhere. Most parents are home. They might realize that grocery stores are barer than usual. 

Informing kids in a positive way can be difficult and challenging, says Lionel Hush, principal of Roosevelt Middle School in West Orange, New Jersey. Everyone's home situation is different, and while some people are financially sound, hourly workers may not have the money rolling in. "For some parents, children knowing about their finances is the last thing some parents want," Hush said.

"I think the big thing is to have age-appropriate conversations and be reassuring," said Mays, who lives in San Diego.

Mays needed to chat with her kids, who range in age from 5 to 23, about the need to think more carefully about food. "You can't just go into the pantry and have whatever you want," Mays said. "We can't just go to the store whenever we want."

Be candid

Wendy Mays, 48, says kids may find the advantages of a quarantine may eclipse some of the financial hardship.
Source: Wendy Mays

When every facet of life has changed, have open conversations.

"At the same time, I address the concerns," Mays said. "I don't want them to feel afraid."

Going to the store used to be a family event. Now Mays goes alone because of the need to keep as isolated as possible.

"The fact we're having the conversation and we're here to talk to is the key," Mays said.

Necessary spending

If money needs to be limited, Mays says it's best to explain that you have the family's long-term security in mind. You could say something like, 'If we spend too much now, we won't be in the best possible situation later on.'

Some families may want to help others, and current spending could cut into that ability. "We just want to make sure we're not spending on things that aren't necessary right now," Mays said.

We've got this

Helping kids feel confident is a challenge, Hush said. Remind them the country can handle this, based on our ability to recover from tough times in the past.

"Just having faith in the economy being able to bounce back is a conversation that has to happen," Hush said. 

Tell your kids about programs offered through local and state governments, as well as the federal stimulus package that was passed on Friday. "As a community and as a family we're here to take care of each other," Hush said. "If things get very bad, there is a safety net."

Parents should tell kids about the available options, whether family or friends, or a possible job opportunity. "We, the adults, are taking care," he said.

Tips for talking to your kids about money

Face time 

When it comes to money conflicts, hold a family meeting.

Thomas Henske, a certified financial planner with Lenox Advisors in New York, recommends doing this at a table — though not over dinner — or in the living room, where family members can face one another. He suggests making comments like, "We are going to have to temporarily change. The good news is, it gives us a chance to think creatively as a family and work as a team."

It's time to bring out your best rah-rah game face. That teamwork message is your general theme, Henske says. "If you don't set the stage that way, you wind up being on the defensive with every [money] question that comes in," he said.

Scary topics

Kids may not always have the right language to explain their fears.

"For example, if they were afraid of dogs, you'd say, 'What makes dogs scary?' " said Henske. 

Another good tactic: Ask how their friends are reacting as a way to ease into the conversation. "Hey, do you think any of this might be scaring some of your friends?" What should they be talking about with their parents?"

You'll have a better idea of how to help kids work through their fears when you have a better grasp of what's upsetting them. 

A silver lining

Since their money conversation, Mays says, her family has been delighting in doing things that don't require money, like game nights and movie nights with popcorn. "We're involved with their education way more than before," she said. "They are getting so much of our attention."

Years from now, kids won't remember they missed soccer practice, but they will remember that their parents got down on the floor and played with them.

SIGN UP: Money 101 is an 8-week learning course to financial freedom, delivered weekly to your inbox.

CHECK OUT: 7 side hustles you can do while working full time that can pay as much as $150 per hour via Grow with Acorns+CNBC.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.