“Eighteen and Out”

A young reader writes in:

I’m a high school senior and I’m going to college next fall. When I go to college, I want to be completely independent, paying my own bills. My parents insist that this is financial suicide and that they should support me through college. What do you think is the right way to go?

Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I left my parents’ house and went to college. When I left, there was a pretty implicit understanding that I would not be moving back in with them in the future. Sure, while I was a student, I could spend between-semester breaks living there and I could live there in short spurts after college if necessary to facilitate moving on to somewhere else, but my parents’ home was no longer my own. It was up to me to find my own way in the world.

This flies squarely in the face of many parenting trends today in which children often live with their parents throughout college and afterwards, sometimes for many years. The reasons are many, usually revolving around the child’s inability to earn a sufficient income to be financially independent.

Even when children reach a point of “independence,” meaning they don’t live at home, many parents still provide some sort of regular financial support, just to help the children make ends meet.

My belief is that I learned much more valuable lessons by having to make it in the real world than I ever would have back under my parents’ roof. Yes, even if that means a very low standard of living during one’s twenties if necessary.

I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t help if a child completely loses everything. However, there’s a big difference between a helping hand and long term support of a lifestyle.

Short term help in a problematic situation is great – it’s the type of thing that strong relationships are made of. The ability to rely on someone else for a short while when life has knocked your feet out from under you is a tremendous boon and I absolutely do not begrudge parents for helping out in those situations.

The problem comes when that help progresses into expectation and reliance. Any situation in which an individual is unable to be independent and is reliant on someone else is dangerous to both parties. It hurts the parent by taking money away from their future plans, ensuring that they’ll be in the workplace longer and will have fewer assets to rely on late in life. It hurts the child by denying them the skills they need to survive in a world that will eventually not include the parents. Plus, it extends the inevitable ending of support to a later date when it’s quite likely to be much more uncomfortable for both parties.

Yes, financial support of one’s children in adulthood makes life “easier” for them in the short term, but it makes life harder for them in the long term. Such support stunts the budgeting and money management skills that they’ll need to survive when they actually do become independent. It also encourages the establishment of a pattern of spending that exceeds their real income.

The real danger, though, is how it impacts you. The money given to your children when they should be independent is money that’s not going to support your retirement. You’ll have to work longer – and if you’re unable to, you’re much more likely to become a late-life burden to your children than you would be if you invested in your retirement now.

I’ve witnessed this phenomenon with my own eyes. My grandmother gave tons of support to her children, even in their adulthood, and during her final years, she barely had enough money to keep the power on and wound up having to fully support one of her children. If she had completely cut the cord when the children entered adulthood, she would have been able to enjoy a financially comfortable retirement – instead, her final years were fraught with financial and personal worry.

My conclusion, if you haven’t figured it out, is that delaying your children’s independence for longer than necessary is detrimental to both parties and should be avoided. If you’re still relying on your parents – or if you’re a parent still providing support to a child that should otherwise be standing on their own two feet – now’s the time to break that cycle. It’s the only way both of you can thrive and grow freely.

To the young lady who wrote in initially, tell your parents to take that support money and put it towards their retirement by bumping up their 401(k) contributions by 2 or 3% a year. Suggest to them that this retirement savings is actually a benefit to you because it reduces the chances that they’ll be a financial burden to you later in life while also giving you the opportunity now to figure out how the world works.

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