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.
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.
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.”
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!”