The parent trap: boomerang kids
When 20-somethings come home, families need some frank talk about finances to stay within budget
As a 20-something in the late 1970s, Melanie Resnick never thought of asking her parents for financial support. They had passed down their sense of frugality as she was growing up, and the message stuck. "My parents worked very hard, and you got things on special occasions. You had two pairs of shoes," says Resnick, now 47. "I knew immediately I had to get a part-time job if I wanted money."
How things have changed. Resnick, a teacher from Matawan, N.J., and her husband, Craig, a manager for a flooring business, found themselves financially able to give their son, Jordan Goldman, more than the basics. The couple paid for his four years at Wesleyan University and then helped finance a master's degree. "I wanted to do more for him than my parents could do for me," says Resnick. "But for him to be independent, you can't do that forever."
So when Jordan needed a place to live after graduating in May, his mother and stepfather offered their home, rent free. But they set guidelines. Jordan, now 23 and a writer, wanted time to finish up his dissertation and to create a website to promote his recent book, Students' Guide to Colleges. The couple gave their son a deadline of six months to strike out on his own or start contributing financially to the household. (He recently moved to his own place.) In the meantime, they helped with food and clothing costs and the cellphone bill but had Jordan pay for his own dinners and movies with friends.
Back to the nest. It's the latest challenge in parenting: dealing with boomeranging adult children--and figuring out who should pay the bills. Gone are the woes of empty-nester parents who wish the kids would call more often. Long after the terrible twos, teenage angst, and even paying for college, parents increasingly are finding their brood both back home and back on their dime. Indeed, since the 1970s, the number of individuals ages 18 to 34 living with their parents has increased by 50 percent.
And, not surprisingly, parents are supporting their offspring longer. The average parent now contributes roughly $38,000 per child for food, housing, education, and spending cash, or an average of $2,200 a year from the ages of 18 to 34, according to a 2004 University of Michigan study. The good news for beleaguered parents? Support peaks at ages 18 to 20 and gradually declines.
Behind the raid on parents' wallets are new economic realities. "This is a very tough time to be a young person economically," says Frank Furstenberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the MacArthur Network on Transitions to Adulthood. Just 30 years ago, it was possible for a high school graduate to achieve a middle-class standard of living. That's no longer the case. Even college graduates have made only small gains in inflation-adjusted wages since 1975. Add to this rising college costs, credit card debt, and pricey rents, and those just starting out can quickly get in the red. "All the transitions that make a young person independent have slowed down," says Furstenberg. Young adults study longer, marry later, and earn their own keep more slowly.
Caught in the squeeze is Alicia Bertoni, 24, who moved back in with her parents in Braintree, Mass., this year while pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy. Facing grad-school loans with only a part-time job, Bertoni found living in high-rent Boston prohibitive. Rent for a shared two-bedroom, parking, and utilities came to $1,000 a month. "Financially, it's not very feasible," says Bertoni, who now lives rent free at home.
For many parents, finding the right balance between being supportive and being indulgent can be tricky. "You have to make sure that you are not a lifestyle subsidizer," says Linda Perlman Gordon, a family therapist and author of Mom, Can I Move Back in With You? Gordon suggests that parents assess their own finances and their child's needs, and commit to a strategy. Paying for a fancy gym may be out, but chipping in for rent in a safer neighborhood may be worth it for a worried parent. Those who plan to let their kids move back home may want to ask for a detailed plan, including length of stay and long-term goals. Gordon plans to give her son a four-week window after he graduates from college in January to polish his resume and start job hunting. In the end, the best support may just be a dose of tough love.
This story appears in the December 12, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.