Are Parents Doing Their Children a Disservice By Subsidizing Them?

by TTMK on January 23, 2014 · 9 comments

The following post is from staff writer Melissa Batai

When I was 18, I went off to college.  I came back a semester later to attend the community college.  I lived at home free and clear while I attended school full-time and worked part-time as a tutor.  Two years later, I transferred to a university two hours away where I completed my degree in English in another two and a half years later.

Soon, I was back to living with mom because without a higher degree, an English degree is not much use.  I lived with mom for another 2.5 years until I went off to graduate school at the age of 27.  Between the ages of 18 and 27, I had lived with my mom five of the nine years.

The second time I lived at home, after I got my B.A., I paid my mom rent and paid for my own groceries.  Thankfully the rent she charged was cheaper than rent for an apartment would have been because I was making a dismal $16,000 a year as a secretary.

My experience bouncing in and out of living with my mom was not unusual.  Many 20-somethings do this.  US News reports, “According to the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, based out of the University of Pennsylvania, the number of 20-somethings living at home has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s.”

What was unusual was that my mom expected me to be financially independent.   I paid her rent, I bought my groceries, and when my mom and I went out to eat, I paid for my own meal.  There were no hand outs from mom.

Many of my friends and even their parents thought my mom was being terrible.  As her daughter, I should be able to live with her without paying rent.

I disagreed.  I didn’t mind paying rent.  I wanted to be (relatively) self-sufficient.

I last lived with my mom 15 years ago, but with the economy now, I see more and more 20-somethings moving back in with their parents.  But it’s not just moving in.

I see parents assume all financial responsibility for their grown children.  The “children” who might be 25 or older live with their parents rent free.  The parents pay for groceries, utilities, and even spending money for their kids.  The “kids” meanwhile are often not employed.  If they are employed, all the money they make is considered “fun” money that they can spend freely buying clothes, going to clubs, going to bars or taking part in outdoor activities like skiing that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

We have a family friend whose son is 52.  The only time he has not lived at home was when he was briefly married.  He’s unemployed more often than not, and his parents still subsidize him.

My Question to You

Are parents doing their adult children a disservice when they pay to subsidize the child’s lifestyle?  If so, why are they unable to stop paying at some point?  When should a parent stop paying for their child’s meals out, entertainment, etc?

If a parent is paying for a child’s expenses, are they doing so at the expense of their own retirement?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy January 23, 2014 at 7:55 am

In my opinion, yes, parents do their kids a disservice by paying their way well into their 20s even when the kids are not in school. You at least paid rent and groceries so you were somewhat independent. However, too many parents allow their kids to simply leach off of them, living in their old room (or the basement), giving them maid and laundry service, providing their food etc. I think this sends a message to the kids that they can’t possibly make it on their own. The government has bought into that by saying kids who are sometimes married with their own children, can stay on their parents insurance policy until age 27. When I got out of school, I had moved out within a week of graduation even though I only had temp jobs for a month or so. It was a source of pride that I was on my own. When my son graduated he had a job waiting for him {aerospace engineering} in another state so there was no thought of him moving back home. If he’d needed to, we would have given him a time frame in which we expected him to move out and we certainly would have asked for money to help with expenses during that time. The first time we visited him after he graduated, when we went to lunch, he picked up the tab and I could tell that he was very proud to be able to do that. I fear we’ve taken that away from our kids by telling them, perhaps subliminally, that they are incapable of being adults.

By the way, I’m curious as to whether you got that more advanced degree and if you are working in the field you studied? I ask because I wondered what your expectation for a job was when you decided to major in English. I tell the story of the daughter of friends who majored in African studies. When she graduated, she couldn’t find a job anywhere so she got her Master’s. When she graduated she commented that she was only qualified to work at Hardees. She eventually got her RN and instantly found a job. I wonder what she though she was going to do with an African studies degree. I think parents have a responsibility to provide some guidance to their kids when selecting a field of study. You can choose a major that satisfies your soul but provides no means to be employed, or you can choose a major that will lead to a job where you can be self-sufficient. If you are luck the two are the same, but in todays world you have to choose something that allows you to be gainfully employed.

Sorry for the lengthy comment. I get a little carried away on this topic. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

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Melissa January 23, 2014 at 11:14 am

Hi, Kathy. Thanks for the comment. That’s great about your son paying for the meal and being proud to do so. Unfortunately, that happens less often now, it seems. I hope my kids grow up like that!

I was the first in my family to go to college, so my parents had very low expectations. They were just excited I was going and wanted to support me. In hindsight, a major in English was not smart. 🙂 I did go on to get a M.A. and then taught English at a community college for 10 years before the high cost of day care for my two little ones convinced me to stay home with them. Now I do freelance work, and I homeschool my own kids. When my kids go to college, I hope to help them decide on a major that is within a field that they’re interested in but is also one that is marketable.

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Little House January 23, 2014 at 9:04 am

Parents are doing a huge disserve to their children when they subsidize their adult children. I recently read an article, on Forbes I think, that one of the worst things parents can do to insure their children DO NOT become leaders is to keep bailing them out. The adult “children” never learn responsibility and continue to count on being “rescued” no matter what they do.

Now for a personal connection, one of my brothers lives at home. He will be 34 in a few weeks. In his late teens and early 20’s he tried moving out three times. All three times ended with my parents going to pick him up and move him back home. He’s now been living at home since the age of 21. I don’t see him ever moving out again. My parents have accepted him as part of their family unit and never make comments about him leaving. He doesn’t have a learning disability, in fact at one time he was considered “gifted.” He’s been employed off and on through the years, but employment never lasts much more than a year. When he’s unemployed, he plays video games for hours. It’s really quite pathetic.

He and I are 8 years apart and it just seems to me that though we were raised in the same household, my parents treated us differently – I was ingrained with responsibility and independence and he learned that mom and dad will always be there to bail him out. It’s very strange.

Sorry for the long comment!

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Melissa January 23, 2014 at 11:16 am

Hi, Little House. Is your brother the baby? It does seem strange that you were raised so differently within the same household. Yet I see more and more families where at least one child is a “lifer” for living at home.

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Little House January 24, 2014 at 8:37 am

Yep. He’s the baby and has been treated as such most of his life. In some ways, I’m glad he lives with them as they get older, but at the same time he’s not living his life to the fullest. I’m also not sure what his plans are once my parents pass away.

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Nick @ Step Away from the Mall January 23, 2014 at 12:37 pm

As a dad with two young kids I often wonder how to balance support and reliance. Fortunately they’re 2 and 4, so we have a long time to teach gratitude, work, etc. We’ll see how it works out. I do think there’s a fine line between helping and enabling.

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Melissa January 23, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Nick–I think the most important thing we can do as parents of young children is teach them how to manage money. That goes a long way toward self-sufficiency.

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jim January 23, 2014 at 2:16 pm

I think there’s a lot of gray area here. Our son moved back home after he graduated from undergrad, got a job and saved his $ in anticipation of law school. We did not charge him rent or make him pay for food and that certainly didn’t hurt our retirement plans. Even if we had charged him for food and rent, that measly amount wouldn’t have made a bit of difference to our retirement, but it certainly would have adversely impacted him by making him take out larger loans to survive in law school. As long as there is a time limit and the kid is working towards something (and I mean really working, not just doing a 1/2 a$$ job) I think it can be a win-win situation. We got a lot of home projects done too while he was here – things I needed a second pair of hands for that my wife wasn’t able to do. Would we let him move home after law school? In a heartbeat, while he studies for the bar and gets a job. But, I doubt that will be necessary as it killed his pride to move back home. Nonetheless, I think it was a good financial decision.

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Melissa January 23, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Jim–I agree, in that situation, letting your son instead save for law school is a smart move. Plus, it was probably nice to have him back and helping around the house. Unfortunately, that’s not how it turns out in this type of situation most of the time.

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