Money & Policy

Paying Bills for Adult Children? Try Tough Love

How to nudge your grown kids out of the financial nest

My youngest son, who is now in his 50s, asked me what it felt like when all the children left the nest.

I thought for a moment and said: "For my entire adult life I'd driven a boat down a clearly marked, narrow channel. I had to stay between the markers in order to provide for my family. Then, when you and your siblings left, I came to a vast ocean with no markers and no land in sight. It was exciting and overwhelming; I had all these options, and I wasn't sure what to do. But it sure was nice my money was finally freed up to make that last push toward retirement."

He told me that was exactly how he felt after graduating college — minus that bit about retirement — flat broke with no real job on the horizon.

(MORE: Kids-Home-From-College-Summertime-Blues)

He had the option of living with us in Florida or moving to Atlanta, where he'd gone to high school and most of his friends lived. He did not ask for, nor did we give him, any financial support — and he opted for Atlanta. He lived with a high-school friend and worked in a restaurant until, several months later, he got his first and only “real job.” He's been with the same employer for over 25 years and is doing just fine.
Nothing can screw up retirement plans like supporting adult children after you've shelled out tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition, shuttled them back and forth for Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, and maybe purchased a new computer for all that research and writing they did (or maybe didn't do) over four-plus years.

And yet, some 85 percent of parents plan to provide some sort of post-graduation financial assistance.

What Changed? 

So, what has changed since my son graduated a few decades ago?

Sure, new graduates are entering a much more difficult job market than he did, and even those who do secure jobs are unlikely to have the job stability he's enjoyed. But a difficult job market is only part of the story.

Social norms have shifted so that accepting help from Mom and Dad well into your 20s is okay. Psychologists call this trend “emerging adulthood.”

(MORE: Your Kids Will Never Let You Retire)

As Eileen Gallo and Jon Gallo note in their paper “How 18 Became 26: The Changing Concept of Adulthood,” for a certain socioeconomic set, growing up and moving out — permanently — means downgrading your lifestyle. The authors quote sociologists Allan Schnaiberg and Sheldon Goldenberg:

“The supportive environment of a middle-class professional family makes movement toward independent adulthood relatively less attractive than maintenance of the [extended adolescence] status quo. Many of the social gains of adult roles can be achieved with higher benefits and generally lower costs by sharing parental resources rather than by moving out on one's own!”
So, what can parents do to make “home” a lot less welcoming, and make complete financial independence look like the brass ring it should be? Turns out, quite a bit:

1. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself: Is my financial assistance helping or hindering my child's emotional and financial growth? Well-meaning, softhearted parents can do a lot of harm without realizing it. Who wouldn't enjoy having most all the privileges of adulthood without the responsibilities?
I get it, folks. Most parents don't want their children to struggle like they may have as young adults. But balance that pull with the understanding that those struggles — and successes — are critical if your child is to emerge an independent adult with a solid self-image.

(MORE: What Do You Owe Your Kids?)

2. Mom and Dad must be on the same page. One parent slipping the son or daughter money while the other fumes does little for a marriage or the emotional and financial well-being of the child.
Some years ago, a friend of ours was really struggling with her 23-year-old son. After counseling, the soft-hearted parent realized the damage she was doing and sent her son packing. Some 25 years later, both parents and their son say it was a major milestone in their lives. He finally got a good job, became responsible and has raised two wonderful children. Now he's actually thankful for the day both Mom and Dad said, “Enough is enough.”
Most parents understand what the right thing to do is; however, it can be difficult. That said, making the same accommodations for your child over and over will only produce the same result.
3. Be a parent and a coach. Offer emotional support and financial mentoring. Saying “no” to financial assistance does not mean you can't help with budgeting, resumé writing, professional networking, interview preparation — heck, whatever it takes!

If you're lucky enough to have a 20-something kid who will actually talk with you about this stuff, jump on each and every opportunity to teach and listen.

Retiring rich is hard enough without paying for your child's extended adolescence. The job market may be tough for new graduates, but forcing your child to navigate it anyway might just be the best way to help. 

Dennis Miller, a financial consultant, is the author of “Retirement Reboot”, a book chronicling his own journey to save his retirement in a low yield, turbulent investing environment. Find more of his columns and reports at millersmoney.com or contact him at [email protected].

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