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Most Americans have no money saved for their children: CNBC + Acorns survey

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Most Americans aren't saving for their kids during the pandemic

Whether it's a standard savings account or college fund, most Americans aren't stowing away any money for their children.

Fifty-three percent of those polled in a recent CNBC + Acorns Invest in You survey said they haven't opened any accounts for their kids.

Thirty-two percent said they set up a regular savings account, 13% have a 529 college fund, 8% have savings bonds, cash or certificates of deposit (CDs) and 7% have an individual retirement account or Roth IRA set up for their children. Of those surveyed, only 19% said they had an automatic savings feature set up.

When it comes to race, 49% of White Americans have nothing saved, compared with 59% of Blacks and 60% of Hispanics.

The coronavirus pandemic is also affecting the ability of some parents to save. Of those who have accounts for their kids, 27% have decreased their contributions. 

Madeline Roosevelt-Defuria is one of those moms who haven't been able to set aside money for their. She has three, now ages 16, 13 and 10.

The 45-year-old was a single mom for eight years before getting married two years ago. A freelance hair and makeup stylist until the coronavirus pandemic hit, she now works with young adults with developmental disabilities. 

During her freelance years, Roosevelt-Defuria's income wasn't steady, so any money she had put aside one month would be used for expenses for the next. 

"I was struggling as a single mom and I was just not able to get ahead," said Roosevelt-Defuria, who lives in Portland, Oregon.

Madeline Roosevelt-Defuria hasn't been able to set up any savings for her children.
Source: Madeline Roosevelt-Defuria

She has since taken control of her financial life and is expecting a baby. She began saving and investing for herself two years ago. She has yet to open accounts for her children but bought a life insurance policy for them last year, which she will transfer to them when they turn 18. She is also taking classes to become a financial planner. 

Despite having financial security now with her new husband, she wants to be responsible for her own financial wellness. 

"Being a single mom scared me," Roosevelt-Defuria said. "It really showed me what a 'struggle' is.

"You never know, life happens."

How to get started

Parents are usually most motivated to put money aside after their baby is born, but if they don't, they wind up procrastinating, said Thomas Henske, a certified financial planner with New York-based Lenox Advisors.

"If you don't get on it right away and set up some sort of recurring contribution, the probability decreases that you are going to set it up anytime soon," he said.

However, if you haven't done anything yet, or not much at all, don't worry — but start figuring out a plan.

Just make sure you fund our own retirement and emergency savings first.

"It might be a good idea to not be actively saving for the kids and make sure you are on track with own financial needs first," said CFP Sophia Bera, CEO and founder of Austin, Texas-based Gen Y Planning.

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When it comes to putting money aside for their children, many parents feel paralyzed about how much to save and how to get started.

The big thing to figure out is what you are saving the money for, Bera advised.

If it is for shorter-term savings goals, like summer camp, then a regular savings account is just fine, she said.

Henske suggests a mutual fund account with an automatic, recurring contribution for those who are just getting started. This way it may not be as easy to pull out funds, yet they are still accessible. However, a bank savings account is a great way for kids to put away their own money, he said.

To save for college, Bera and Henske suggest also setting up a 529 plan, which provides tax-free growth and tax-free withdrawals for qualified education expenses.

Don't fall into what Henske calls "analysis paralysis" and worry about which state plan to use.

"Go to your state's plan, set it up and have it automatically contribute the minimum amount, even if that is $25 a month," he said.

"When you start to get all sophisticated, you can start to figure out what is the best plan and you can transfer it over to that other state's plan."

You also don't have to go it alone. Many plans allow you to send a link to family members to make contributions, said Bera, who is a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.

Another option for low- to middle-income parents is setting up a Roth IRA account. A married couple filing jointly must make under $206,000 to be able to contribute to a Roth.

More from Invest in You:
Here's how the pandemic has upended the financial lives of average Americans
5 crucial financial lessons for kids of all age
About 14% of Americans have wiped out emergency savings during pandemic

It will grow money toward the parents' retirement, but contributions can also be withdrawn at any time, tax-free. That "gives them some flexibility in paying for college costs in the future," Bera said.

It also may help parents get a better financial aid package for their child since the money is not counted as income in the financial aid application, she said. Money in a 529 plan may have a limited impact on aid received.

Teaching valuable lessons

By putting money aside for your children, you are teaching them the value of saving while they are young, Bera said.

When they get older enough, they can put their own money into a savings account.

"It teaches them to save and to appreciate savings," Henske said. "It also teaches them to budget because they use that money for their own expenses."

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Financial literacy isn't being taught to those most in need

You can also opt to match any allowance money they put into the account.

"That can go a long way in encouraging healthy savings habits as kids get older," Bera said.

In the end, try not to get overwhelmed by all the choices. The important thing is to start setting aside some money, somewhere, Henske said.

"It can be anything," he said. "Just do something."

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CHECK OUT: How I went from owing $29,000 and making under $36,000 to debt-free with over $100,000 saved via Grow with Acorns+CNBC.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.