In 1998, popular author Stephen Bly released a new book: Just Because They’ve Left Doesn’t Mean They’re Gone: How to Love and Support Your Adult Children. If anything, in the nearly quarter-century since Bly’s book was published, the problems he addresses have only become more acute.
According to figures recently published by the Pew Research Center, more young adult Americans are living with their parents than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. As of July 2020, 52% of those aged 18 to 29 were living with their parents. This is up from just 11 percent in 1980. And a large majority—79%—of those who have given money to their adult kids during the coronavirus pandemic say that the funds would have otherwise gone toward improving their own finances. In other words, more older Americans than ever are sacrificing their own financial health to support their adult children.
Without question, there are times when it is entirely appropriate to offer a helping hand to a struggling adult child. Of course we would want to help our children when they are clearly victimized by circumstances beyond their control by things like health emergencies, natural disasters, and the like.
And there may be other occasions when we can provide temporary assistance to our children as they enter and adjust to adulthood—for example, keeping them on your cell phone plan for a limited period of time, or helping to pay off a vehicle. Even assistance with making the down payment on a first home can be okay.
But the key words here are “occasions” and “temporary.” These forms of help should be both specific and clearly limited in scope and duration. When your financial assistance becomes a lifestyle expectation for adult children who are otherwise healthy and capable of supporting themselves, it becomes a threat to your retirement and other important long-range financial goals. Not only that, but your “helping” is probably actually hurting; by allowing them to continue their dependence on you, you are, in effect, handing out fish instead of teaching them how to use a rod and reel.
And one other thing: Who is going to support you during your retirement if you’ve given away your means of sustenance to your adult children? In other words, one of the best things you can do for your children is to make sure they won’t have to support you financially in your retirement years.
If you’re doling out too much cash to adult kids, there are some things you can do to reverse the trend without sacrificing the relationship, according to the AARP. First, you and your spouse, if applicable, need to get on the same page. Many couples differ over how much help is appropriate for an adult child, and it’s important that you agree on the way forward before communicating with your children.
Next, you can have “the talk”—or, more likely, a series of talks. It won’t be easy, but if you focus the conversation on your needs—especially if you’re endangering the security of your retirement—you can move into an explanation of how your “generosity” today is creating a problem for you and your child, down the road.
You can also offer to help in non-financial ways: assist them in looking for a better job; help them set up a budget they can maintain; brainstorm solutions to their situation that don’t involve your checkbook; or simply be available to listen sympathetically and offer emotional support. Ultimately, though, you have to be willing to let go. They are adults, after all, and at some point, they must take responsibility for their own maintenance.
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