Why giving your grown kids money is a terrible idea

As a parent, you know full well that the check writing usually doesn’t stop when your kids reach adulthood. In fact, the financial demands of parenthood may seem never-ending.

But a new study sheds light on just how extensive that lingering financial support is, how damaging it can be to your finances, and the degree to which parents, out of love, are willing to sabotage their own security.

Merrill Lynch reports that 79% of parents with adult children between the ages of 18 and 35 provide financial support to their grown kids, spending an average of $6,600 a year per child.

The estimated $500 billion parents fork over each year in total is double what Merrill Lynch estimates the same group is setting aside for retirement annually.

Do you think parents should give their adult children money?

Even more startling: Parents are making this tradeoff with eyes wide open. More than 7 in 10 of all parents surveyed—those with young as well as older kids—say they have consciously put the kids ahead of their own need to save for retirement.

Among parents of grown kids, 82% are prepared to continue down that path, reporting that they stand ready to sacrifice their own finances to help an adult child.

“Parents might say helping children stand up on their own two feet and go out into the wide world is a priority,” says Surya Kolluri, managing director at Merrill Lynch. But, he adds, it is important to “take a step back and consider what are all my financial priorities and how do I keep them in balance?”

What exactly parents are financing 

The Merrill Lynch survey of more than 2,500 parents, conducted in partnership with Age Wave, a research firm focused on the impact of an aging population, found that parents of kids age 18 to 35 help with a wide array of expenses. 

Those include food and groceries (60% of parents help), car payments (47%), the cell plan (54%), even footing at least some of the bill for vacations (44%).

Sometimes this means covering a portion of the expenses, other times it’s the whole bill. For example, a third of these parents pay their adult children’s entire cell phone tab; one out of five pay for vacations in full.

These outlays can come at a cost: The study reports that half of parents of adult kids say they are willing to raid their savings to help, more than one in four say they stand ready to raid their retirement accounts, and another quarter of say they will take on debt if needed.

How helping can hurt

Emotionally, this financial support makes all the sense in the world. The kids get older, yet they never stop being your kids. But this is a critical juncture where letting your head have a say in things can be vitally important. 

If you are getting a late start on saving for retirement, or you’ve run the numbers and would like to save more, the empty nest years are an unparalleled opportunity to catch up. That can be a lot harder, if not impossible, when you are still supporting your kids.

What’s more, putting your kids’ needs before your own increases the likelihood you’ll have to rely on them for financial support down the line. Another Merrill Lynch study found that nearly 70% of caregivers provide financial support for an elderly family member, spending an average of $7,000 a year.

Something else to think about: More parents are moving in with their kids, as the percentage of parents living in an adult child’s home has doubled since 1995 to 14%.

How to find a better balance

“We are going to be parents for life,” says Kolluri. But your role as a parent changes over time. “There is a life stage up until age 18, and then there is a life stage after age 18,” he adds. 

Recognizing that transition can help you to reevaluate your financial relationship with your grown child and set some boundaries on your support. Around half of the survey respondents with older kids say they wish they had done a better job of that.

Kolluri suggests you keep reminding yourself: “Those boundaries are going to help me, the parent, manage the rest of my life, which is saving for retirement, paying off my house, saving for my health.” 

When you have a heart-to-heart with your kids about money—and you should—here’s how to reset the financial expectations:

Establish needs vs. wants. Making sure your kid isn’t subsisting on a ramen-only diet is one thing, but helping to pay for vacations? Or pitching in so they can buy a nicer car, when that money could be used to pay down your mortgage or save more in your IRA or 401(k)?

Keep your support to the essentials, such as rent and groceries, not the extras like Uber rides and dinners out.

Make it formal. Rather than replenishing an empty bank account any time your son or daughter asks, agree upfront how much support you’ll provide every month, and transfer that money regularly. Only break that budget in the case of a true emergency.

Set an end date. Have a plan for when the financial support will stop, perhaps pegged to a milestone like when graduate school ends, or a year or two from now. 

Those great adults you’ve raised are bound to appreciate your need to find the right balance between supporting them today and nailing your own financial security.

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