Adult children: cut the purse strings

March 18, 2013
moving back in with parents google

When is the right time to stop giving money to your adult children? A mother I know still works as a nurse at 65 to help support three daughters, and one of their boyfriends. They all live with her and her hard-working husband without paying board. Her children are 32, 30 and 25; two are unemployed despite being graduates of the most expensive private schools, and the third, having done a fine arts degree, works part-time for an uncle.

Is there a time for tough love? A friend thought the right time was about two years ago. Her children, both in their 30s, had pursued artistic careers. Between bouts of travel and meditation retreats, the kids were hard workers but their money was often tight. The parents bailed them out on demand but eventually drew a line in the sand: no more. And so it held until recently when one of the children lost his job. I could go on……another friend who is quite well off contributes to the upkeep of his 40-year-old daughter and her three children even after she re-partnered to a “self-employed graphic artist.” She works occasionally as a Pilates teacher but is accustomed to a lifestyle that is far from alternative. Someone else I know paid for her 25-year-old unemployed daughter’s overseas holiday.

And me? I’m grappling with the question of board. My 24-year-old, after a five-year degree, has snared himself a serious, full-time job. So how much board should I charge a young man with a big HECS debt, a desire to move out into the notorious Sydney rental market, and a dream to travel to the World Cup in Brazil next year?

Some of us baby boomers have been working hard since we were 21, and if we were smart, lucky or in well-paid work we can afford to help our kids out. But should we do so, for how long, and with what largesse? For people heading towards retirement with little to spare the question doesn’t arise. Their children survive without the parental safety net just as most boomers did in their youth.

Yet times have changed. My friends and I are not alone in our confusion. In an Australian study, the parents of 23 and 24-year-olds were evenly split as to whether it was a good thing to give money to their children. But almost two-thirds of them had done so during the year, according to the research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Parents provided loans or gifts of money, and helped the children out with rent or bills. Fifteen per cent had given their son or daughter substantial help – a car, or a house or flat to live in. Another survey last year by the University of Adelaide shows Australians over 50 give $22 billion a year to family members, usually their children. It was the sandwich generation, with elderly parents and adult children, who gave the most. One-third gave $10,000 or more in a year, mostly to the kids.

It’s fashionable to criticise “helicopter parents” who hover over their grown children. But such criticism is often simplistic. US data shows baby boomer parents are much more involved with their grown children than their parents were with them. It’s doubtless true of Australia: young adults report more frequent contact and share more similar values with their parents, a development to applaud, surely. Changes in the job and housing markets and in education make it harder for our children to get established. Providing they are trying, they need our patience and support, and in an occasional crisis, our money; there’s some re-assuring evidence that 20-somethings who get that parental help are better-adjusted and happier than those who don’t.

But that said there are limits. I vividly remember an occasion when I was 2I and invited my parents to my first (shared) house. We sat on bean bags and I put my feet up on the scruffy, cut-down coffee table. Instinctively my father ordered me to get my feet off. Hey it was my coffee table, my house; I was working, paying the rent. It was the glorious moment I realised I was an autonomous adult. As easy as it is to share with our adult children, to help them out or set them up, at some threshold, surely long before 30, we have to cut them free from the family purse strings to let them grow up.

What’s your experience? (Go to ‘Leave a reply’)

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