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When your kid is a financial train wreck, limits are key

Six out of 10 parents with adult children

Six out of 10 parents with adult children said they had given those children financial help in the previous 12 months, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. Credit: iStock

Financial planners and credit counselors see plenty of examples. The grown son who lost a job, moved home and stopped looking for work. The daughter who constantly mismanaged her checking account — and turned to payday lenders when parents stopped covering her overdrafts. The father working into his 70s to support spendthrift children in their 40s and 50s.

Giving adult children money is the norm in the United States. Six out of 10 parents with adult children said they had given those children financial help in the previous 12 months, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

But the toll can be steep, advisers say. Supporting able-bodied children or repeatedly bailing them out of debt creates dependency when parents should help them become self-sufficient. The unwise spending also can:

  • Delay or derail the parents’ retirement.
  • Fuel sibling resentment and family discord.
  • Enable dangerous behavior, including addiction or untreated mental illness.

Change is possible when parents set limits and communicate those limits to their kids. Here’s what planners advise:

Figure out what you can afford

Delia Fernandez, a CFP in Los Alamitos, California, uses retirement planning software to show what happens if clients continue spending on their kids at their current level. Often, the results are eye-opening. “They’ll say, ‘Why is the chart turning red?’ ” Fernandez says. “They thought they’d be retiring at 62, but now they’re looking at 66 or later.”

Set expectations

Parents should be clear about when they will and won’t help. If the children aren’t trying to be self-sufficient, any help should have an expiration date. If the offspring needs basic budgeting help, credit counselors can offer advice, classes or debt-management plans.

Target your help

Giving cash to irresponsible adult children is a bad idea. Instead, parents should direct the money toward something specific, such as paying the mechanic for a car repair or taking over certain bills, planners say.

Consider your other kids

Money shouldn’t equal love, but it often does in the siblings’ minds when financial help is doled out unequally.

Siblings also may worry they’ll have to support the parents or the financially irresponsible child someday, which adds to their resentment. Knowing the parents have a plan to wean that person, or some kind of stop-loss figure where they’ll stop giving, can ease the situation.

Parents can at least treat their children equally in death by dividing their estate equally.

Treating children unequally “is a very hurtful thing,” says Laura Scharr-Bykowsky, a CFP in Columbia, South Carolina. “And the parents don’t see it.”


Financially irresponsible children limp from crisis to crisis, so parents who set boundaries should expect to get pleas for emergency help. If possible, avoid knee-jerk responses. Parents who decide to step in should set and communicate limits. For example, they can offer to pay one or two months’ rent to stave off an eviction, but tell the offspring to find affordable shelter after that.

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