Despite improving job prospects for college graduates, many are headed back to their parents’ nests to save money. They are not alone. According to the Census Bureau, about one-third of 18- to 34-year-olds, or about 24 million, lived in their parents’ home in 2015. And 2.2 million offspring, ages 25 to 34 who are boomeranging back home, neither attend school nor work.
This was a real head-scratcher for me. How could these adults be doing nothing? More to the point, why are parents allowing the situation to persist? According to a recent Merrill Lynch retirement study, nearly half of Americans age 50 and over say that they are “willing to overextend themselves financially to give their children a more comfortable life.”
The study also found that about half of retirees who gave money to family members felt they had an obligation to do so, and 80 percent of them said they felt that it was the right thing to do.
Perhaps if you are flush in retirement and can afford to help out your kids, you might consider doing so. However, I am concerned that many parents are putting their own financial futures at risk because of this sense of obligation. Some of these near-retirees have written to ask about the best way to assist their adult children. Here are few examples:
Is it OK to reduce my retirement plan contribution to help pay for the additional expense of having my son live with us?
No. Have him at least contribute to the groceries or rent.
Which is a better way to free up cash for a down payment for my daughter’s purchase of a new home, a 401(k) or a home-equity loan?
Neither. If you have cash available to assist, fine, but it is too dangerous to assume new debt obligations, unless there’s an emergency.
Can I count on working a few extra years to help out my kids today?
No, because you don’t know whether your employer will want to keep you or whether you will be able to physically do your job.
Here’s the potential problem with all of these decisions: Each one could derail future plans and, more important, might hurt those you are trying to help. Considering that in the Merrill Lynch survey, 60 percent of respondents said that one of their greatest worries is becoming a burden (physically, financially and emotionally) on their families, this is no small matter.
Before you start doling out dough, the first step is to understand where you stand with your retirement planning. Presuming that you can afford to help out, there should be an explicit conversation between the generations.
Discuss exactly how you plan to help (monthly stipend, reduced rent for living at home, help with paying off student loans), how long you can provide the financial assistance and (here’s the kicker) what you expect in return.
Tell your child that you need to see evidence that she is mature enough to manage the process. That may mean coming clean about how the financial crunch occurred and how she can prevent another one from happening.
I recommend making it a requirement that she create a cash flow and financial plan before you provide the assistance. That might sound a bit controlling, but without it you may be enabling bad behavior. If you are providing a loan, then discuss the terms and determine a realistic repayment plan.
Parents need to strike a reasonable balance between being there for their kids and keeping themselves out of financial danger.