Still Supporting Your Adult Kids? 5 Steps to Set Them Free

They need to become independent, and you need to have a stable retirement. Wean your children financially with love and respect.

If you’re the parent of young adults, you may be wondering if your kids are ever going to make it on their own.

It’s small comfort, but if you’re helping support grown kids, you’re in good company. Here’s what a May 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found:

  • About 61 percent of American parents with adult children gave adult children financial support in the past year.
  • Half of that assistance was for special circumstances, not for ongoing financial support.
  • Among parents who were helping adult kids with recurring costs, education expenses were the biggest reason.
  • Thirty percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 polled had an adult child living with them most of the year. That’s about normal and down from 36 percent in 2012, when the number hit its highest point in 40 years.

Younger workers wobbling

Although the recession is behind us, the recovery has been tepid and many young Americans still are struggling financially. Unemployment and underemployment, poor-quality jobs and low wages continue to make it hard for younger adults to get launched financially. “[S]even classes of students have graduated into an acutely weak labor market and have had to compete with more-experienced workers for a limited number of job opportunities,” says a study by the Economic Policy Institute.

Younger adults’ economic difficulties are a reflection of long-term economic trends. More jobs today require advanced skills. Fewer high-paying factory jobs are available for workers who have only a high school diploma, The Wall Street Journal writes.

Supportive emancipation

Despite the undeniable economic difficulties, some observers say that this generation’s kids also are slower to grow up.

It’s hard for loving parents to know how to best express their support and when help really is in a child’s best interest. Despite the economic headwinds, they still must become independent. And by helping them financially, you may be subtly signaling that you don’t trust that they are capable of caring for themselves.

Also, helping your kids may endanger your own financial stability, especially if you have taken on debt or delayed your retirement to help them.

“This is of course an additional financial burden on the parents, and one they had not likely planned for,” says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “What was intended to be a temporary situation often turns into a permanent one, potentially burdening the finances and the relationship.”

If your grown kids are depending too heavily on Mom and Dad, here’s guidance for cutting them off with love and respect, and helping them launch independent lives:

1. Set boundaries gently but firmly

Cut the cord gradually.

Begin with a conversation. Tell the kids how much you love them. Tell them that you believe in them and mean it. Of course they have failed sometimes. Most of us need to try — and try again — until we figure out how to get it right. Try to focus on the times when they got it right, on ways they’ve proved their capacity to succeed.

Tell them that you’ll be there for them as they take on more and more of their financial responsibilities. Ask them to help identify nonfinancial ways you can be supportive, and then commit to the ones you can, in the place of money.

2. Make a plan to end help, with dates

This is a big change and it could be tough on all of you. Tell the kids what they can and can’t expect from you. Make a road map for this journey, with goals and dates for achieving them.

If possible, include your kids in setting these goals and in discussing how to reach them. Involving them respects and supports their independence. It also may give you important information about what’s realistic for them to achieve and when.

Of course not all kids will be able to respect their parents’ need to pull back. Some won’t be willing to participate in this planning with you.

One way of defusing the difficulties may be to get help from someone who’s neutral, a nonprofit financial counselor. NFCC counseling is free or low-cost. Counselors can act as an independent third party to facilitate the transition to independence.

Find an NFCC counseling agency near you by calling 800-388-2227.

3. Help them create a budget

Teach adult kids the basics of finance if they don’t already have a good grasp. One practical way to do this is to create a budget together. Try not to make it overly complicated. (See: “6 Secrets to Easy Budgets.”)

You might use one of the free online budgeting sites like our partner PowerWallet. Or maybe the kids will go for a simple spreadsheet like Excel or Google docs’ free spreadsheet. Here’s a good rule of thumb for budgeting: Earmark 50 percent of income for needs, 30 percent for wants and put 20 percent in savings.

4. Pull back gradually

Don’t cut off your kids suddenly or in one drastic step. Take 12 to 24 months to help them get on their feet financially. Start by removing support for smaller expenses. For example, you could tell them that for the first six months, you’ll pay for their cellphone plan, but after that, it’s up to them.

Continue helping with student loans longest – for about 18 months — while your grown kids get used to assuming other responsibilities and get some success under their belts.

5. Lead by example

You may have kept family finances private from your kids in the past. Many Americans do. But some increased transparency can help the kids watch how you do it. Be sure you pay bills on time, work on your credit score and save whenever possible.

They’ll be watching your spending closely during this period. Make sure you model the frugality and careful habits that you want to see in them.

Bonus tip

If you’re the parent of younger children, you have a chance to head off dependency in adulthood by encouraging financial independence now. Time Magazine has good ideas for how to do this. Or if you prefer, here’s a what-not-to-do article detailing six easy steps to make sure your kids grow up to be morons about money and personal finance.

Have you had to cut off financial support for your adult kids? Tell us what worked and what didn’t. Share with use in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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  • Sandy Falk

    Instead of continuing to just hand over money I now have a list of work that I am willing to pay to have done. It has made a big difference in what they ask for.

  • NoCellPhones

    About a year ago I finally broke free from supporting my adult children. One was 32 and the other was 26. I felt guilty about focusing on my educational needs and not as much on them during their formative years, so I tried to make it up to them. This was a huge disaster. I didn’t do either of them any good and when it was all said and done, they felt entitled to my help and money and were angry when I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. I cut them free last year.

    I tried to prepare them for “the real world” for a year before I cut them off, but they would not let go.–One of them refused to look for a job, lived in rental property I owned but refused to pay any rent, and changed the locks on the house so I could not get in. She also damaged the house to the tune of 16K.

    Heads up other parents, you don’t do your children any good by coddling them in this world. To be productive adults, they must learn to take care of themselves. Don’t make the mistake that I made.

    • H.

      My 55 year old sister moved in with my mother. Sis sent Dad, who had a hermit personality, to assisted living when he had end stage congestive heart failure. He died three months later. Sis then provided Mom a document to sign which revoked any say I might have with regard to her care or finances. Mom got accustomed to the ease of someone else making all the decisions. I am a career teacher, but Sis has not been employed for the last 23 years. This means she has time to devote to Mom while, in contrast, I have to satisfy my employer. My own Mother signed away my birth right. No matter my opinion, to the world, it is of no value. The most hurtful part is that my own mother chose to sign, notarize and disseminate her decision. Sis handed her the loaded gun, but Mom pulled the trigger. Adding salt to the wound, Mom told me her decision via a phone call to my classroom where I was teaching elementary age kids.That was 11 months ago. Her last words to me were, “I love you.”
      You be the judge.

  • whattarush

    My wife and I were lucky enough to have The Bank of Mom and The Bank of Dad when it was necessary. As responsible adults, we asked infrequently and paid back quickly. It helps to do it that way because The Banks will be open again, if necessary. Now, my mom sends money every once in awhile to celebrate a life event — something as silly as buying a house and a car. We don’t need the money, but she feels it’s her way of celebrating with us. She has the means, and she wants to spread it out while she’s alive to see us enjoy it. My daughter never really seemed to need money to get by, but I did watch her children frequently when she worked or she and her husband wanted to go out for the evening. I feel very thankful that she has been able to make it in this world. As long as it’s beneficial to everyone, I don’t see why multiple generations can share the house. As parents, we hope to help our children if they need it, but when they start to feel entitled or demanding and disrespectful, at that point we realized we might have raised a monster. That’s when it’s difficult to train them to provide for themselves.

  • SuzieQ

    I so agree with NoCellPhones. I have seen this happen too many times. My husband and I took in his daughter and were trying to help her get back on her feet. She even had a part time job at his business and we were saving her pay to get her started in life. I sold her my Toyota that I could have gotten 2k for and charged her only $300. Not only was she using us, she was getting drunk in her room (my house) every night after we went to bed. We had to lock up all the liquor in the house and we do not even drink. Eventually, she left. It’s been seven years and we still have her cat. When she called to get it back a year ago, I told her it was too late. She never sent a dime to help with the cat’s expenses, but she is a part of our family now and we gladly pay them.

  • Bettina Murphy

    My younger son (31) is doing great. He learned his lesson from a few financial mishaps when he was about 18. Except for his mortgage him and his wife are debt free. They both have good jobs and he is about to finish his degree in nuclear medicine. I never have to worry about them and I never have to help. My older son (32) would be, too, if he wouldn’t have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes right before starting college. He has monthly medical expenses ranging from 600 to 800 dollars on top of his financial aid payment which is income-based and not all that much. He has no other bills except for his car insurance and his cell phone. He is struggling financially because of his medical condition. I feel the need to help here and there, even though he hates it and often refuses. But sometimes he has no choice but to accept it. Unless something drastic happens with health care, I don’t see myself ever stopping to help.

  • Suzanne Locke

    It is hard to cut your kids off but you are not helping them by continuing to bail them out. A big problem is a parent that helps them even though they do not want to and the other parent who is willing to cut the strings. It would be one thing if they got in a bind one month but the child refuses to change careers or go to school.

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