Parental Support and the “Salad Years”

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Mary writes in:

My son recently graduated from college and took a job with a startup. It doesn’t pay well, but he’s building some fantastic experience and connections and if the startup goes well he’ll be in on the ground floor. For now, though, he’s living in a tiny apartment with four other people and lives on free food from work or the cheapest stuff he can find at the store. My husband and I want to give him money to help through this period (we can easily afford it) but we also don’t want him to be dependent on us. What should we do?

Questions like this are difficult because the best answer varies so much on the specifics.

What kind of person is the child? Is that child truly self-reliant? Does that child use their money wisely?

What is the relationship between the parents and the children? Is it a relationship that has shown significant dependence issues in the past? Has it shown significant conflict in the past?

What about the career path? Is the child on a career path that’s heading toward great success? Or is the child treading water and not showing motivation toward finding a path of their own?

Are the parents truly on financially firm ground? Will financial support to a child alter their path toward retirement? Will this gift be resented in the future?

All of these factor into the equation as to whether or not a parent should offer financial support to a child in adulthood, and they’re going to have different answers based on the experiences and beliefs of both the parent and the child.

If I were in a situation like your own, here’s how I would resolve it.

The first and biggest thing I’d ask myself is whether or not my child was on a positive professional path. Is my child trying to work toward something better in life, or are they coasting? Are they spending a lot of their hours working toward a positive career, or are they focused on partying?

I’d try to get an assessment of this in any way that I could – personal observations of their life, Facebook, Twitter, and anything else I could use. If they’re bragging about how drunk they get every evening, I would be less likely to extend help. If they’re talking about building a career and professional interests, I’m far more likely to extend help.

I want to help a child who is helping themselves. I don’t want to help a child that’s not trying to improve their situation.

The next thing I’d do is talk to that child. Do they want help? Some children will not. They want to prove themselves. They want to fly independently. Other children will see help as a tool to make their ascent a little bit faster.

I went through a period early in my career where I had zero interest in accepting any help from my parents. I wanted to do it myself, as an independent person. I understand that feeling.

I also understand that when you’re struggling, it can be incredibly valuable to have something to help you right the ship.

You should not foist an unwanted gift on someone. You might want to help, but if they don’t want the help, you shouldn’t offer it.

I would also make sure that any help I gave would not adversely affect my retirement path. If I mess up my retirement savings, there’s a good chance that I would become a burden for my children.

On some level, proper retirement savings is a form of long-term help for my children. It ensures that we don’t become a burden for them.

A final factor is that there would be a clear end date for this support. It might be my retirement day. It might be the day they pay off the largest of their student loans. It might be something else entirely.

Whatever it might be, it would be clear to everyone involved that the financial help stops completely at that point.

If – and only if – I was able to answer these questions in a positive manner, I would give some limited financial help to my child as an adult. If any of those questions pointed elsewhere, I would not offer financial help to my adult child.

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