Most parents want nothing more than to provide a good life for their children, but the past decade has made that a challenge. The Great Recession that cursed the late 2000s wiped out millions of jobs and upended countless Americans' finances. In short, there was a multi-year period when the future just didn't look all too bright.
Thankfully, the economy has picked up in recent years, as tends to be its cycle, and parents are feeling more optimistic about their kids' prospects as a result. In a New York Life study released late last year, more than half of parents with children 18 and under said they're more hopeful about their kids' future now than they were at the start of the decade. In fact, 67% of parents think their children will enjoy a better standard of living than they do.
If your goal is to set your kids up for a healthy financial future, there are several steps you can take today to make that happen. Here are a few to focus on.
1. Teach your children the importance of saving
We all need money on hand for various reasons, whether it be emergencies or retirement, so if you get your children get into the habit of setting money aside, they'll hopefully carry that practice with them into adulthood. The best way to encourage your kids to save is to open bank accounts for them and show them the value of socking away their allowance money and birthday gifts. Explain the concept of earning interest, and track their accounts' earnings so that they recognize the value of housing their money in the bank, as opposed to their piggy banks.
2. Get your kids started with investing
Investing is a great way to accumulate wealth, but many adults don't do it because they're fearful of losing money or feel they lack the knowledge to pull it off successfully. But if you get your kids started with investing early on, they'll be more inclined to do so when they're older. Even if you're not well-versed in investing yourself, there are numerous beginner guides out there that can help you build a starter portfolio. Read those guides with your children and let them be active participants in the stock-selection process.
As a general rule, it's a good idea to invest in companies whose business models you understand. For your kids, that might mean investing in companies like Disney, McDonald's, or even Amazon.com, to name just a few.
3. Save for your kids' college
A good way to set your kids up for a healthy financial future is to help them avoid the staggering amount of student debt so many college graduates end up with. And that means saving for their education as early on as possible. Once they're old enough, you can explain to your children how you're able to set that money aside (such as by making smart choices in your budget) and why it's so important. You can also involve them in tracking their accounts' growth to drive home the importance of investing.
While you have several options when it comes to saving for college, 529 plans are a good choice because they offer tax-free growth on your money. These plans also aren't restrictive when it comes to transferring assets between children, so if you have multiple kids who will need to go to college someday, you have the option to move funds from one account to another if, say, one child of yours gets a scholarship and doesn't come to need all the money you've saved.
Another option for college savings is a Roth IRA. Though you're limited to an annual contribution of $5,500 if you're under 50, or $6,500 if you're 50 or older, like 529 plans, Roth IRAs offer tax-free growth on your money. They also offer a lot more flexibility with how you use your savings. With a 529 plan, you'll be penalized if you withdraw funds for non-educational purposes (though those penalties will only apply to your investment earnings, and not your original contributions). With a Roth IRA, you can save for college and then reserve whatever funds you don't use for your own retirement. Just be aware that higher earners can't contribute to Roth IRAs directly, so if you don't qualify, you might go the 529 route instead.
It's encouraging to see that parents today have a positive outlook with regard to their kids. But if you really want to set your children up for a solid financial future, play an active role in encouraging smart money habits, and set an example by saving for their education yourself. With any luck, they'll one day come to appreciate your efforts and great advice.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Maurie Backman owns shares of Amazon and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.