When Do You Stop Helping Your Adult Children?

Rodney and Carol retired in their early sixties. A few years later their youngest child, Greg, lost his graphic arts job and decided to start a small manufacturing business. To start the company, he got his parents to invest $50,000. They wanted to help their son succeed in his dream, so they made the investment. But it wasn’t long before they were asked for another $50,000, then another and another. More than $250,000 additional dollars later the business tanked and Rodney and Carol have depleted a sizeable portion of their retirement account. Consequently, Rodney, now in his seventies, is working as a consultant just to make ends meet.  And, he is doing so at a time in his life when he should be enjoying his financial independence.

Rodney and Carol literally sacrificed their own happiness and financial well-being for their son.

When Gloria retired from her job as a kindergarten teacher, one of the things she looked forward to most was spending more time with her grandchildren.  She offered to help out with occasional childcare. Her daughter-in-law wanted to return to work and leaped at Gloria’s offer, and she soon found herself enlisted as a full-time free nanny.

Her grandchildren, a boy and a girl aged four and two, were active, healthy and rambunctious. Riding herd on them took all of Gloria’s energy and she found herself resenting the assumption that she’s always available.

“I messed up. I offered – and gave – way too much. Now I’m in a place where I feel guilty trying to back out. I don’t want to hurt our relationship.”

Gloria needs to tell her daughter-in-law that she can help with the kids some days, but not all days.  It’s too much for her watching them every day.

Shelley and Andrew were ready to sell their 4-bedroom home and retire to the Maritimes where Andrew had inherited some property. Their plans were put on hold when their 34-year old son, Mark, lost his job and asked to move in with them until he secured another position – bringing with him his wife and two toddlers.

It’s been over a year now and Mark has been unable to find suitable employment.

“A few months later we would have been living in our retirement home and it wouldn’t have been possible for them to move in with us.”

Parents helping adult children

It’s tough to say no

Parents learn to say no fairly quickly when their toddler begins to explore the world – to protect the child, to teach right from wrong, and to help him or her emerge as an independent adult.

Why is it that it becomes a big challenge for new, and soon-to-be, retirees to say “no” to their adult children?

Parents often find it difficult to tell their adult children no even when they want to. You might worry about hurting their feelings or creating conflict in your relationship.

You may be concerned about your child’s financial well-being. You may not want your child to struggle financially, especially if you once did.

These are all good reasons. But, how does an adult child learn to be self-sufficient or learn to live within a budget if the parents are always willing to hand over money? And, if your children are used to you saying yes all the time they may find it hard to accept a negative response.

If your adult children are asking for something, whether it’s babysitting services, money, or something else and you need to say no, say it clearly. Don’t hint around that you’re busy or you’ve had a lot of expenses lately. Just say “No, I can’t help you with that.” Provide a brief explanation if you want to, but you don’t need to justify your decision.

Related: Kids bailing out parents

Learn to say no with the same enthusiasm as the average two-year-old.

Think about it. Have you experienced setbacks, disappointments and hardships? Did you deal with the challenge and then get on with your life? Contrary to what you believe, your child can, and will, figure it out too.

Initial considerations

Can you really afford to help your child?

Why does your child need money? Is it a short-term crisis, or a chronic problem?

You are not doing your children any favours if they’re always coming to you with their problems and bad luck stories.

If you have children who have moved back home be crystal clear about your expectations for their eventual financial independence that works for both of you.

You have the right to decide what to do with your time. If you are always available to babysit your grandchildren or take care of the family pet, you may be creating an expectation you will not always be able to maintain.

Final thoughts

I’m not suggesting that you should never help your child. If they are typically financially responsible, but have fallen on hard times, of course you’re going to want to be there for them. But they shouldn’t be relying on you as a cash machine whenever a money problem comes along.

It’s natural to want to help, and you may be able to afford to. But, the reality is that you are not doing your kids any favours by always bailing them out. Always coming to the rescue can jeopardize both your child’s initiative and coping skills, and your own retirement security. You have less time and resources to prepare for your own retirement when you always put your child’s needs before your own.

Give financially to your adult children if you choose, but remember it’s a gift, not an obligation or reason to put your own plans on the back burner. Parents do not owe their children the lifestyle they may have become accustomed to. Instead, you can give emotional support and financial mentoring, and help them find alternative solutions.

One day you’re not going to be around anymore. Do you want your kids to have to learn to deal with their problems when they’re 60?

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  1. Sandy on October 21, 2016 at 3:52 am

    I think these lessons start when your children are small and you have opportunities to teach them about financial literacy. My kids are adolescents but we often discuss their future and the rules under which they’ll be allowed to live in the family home once they’re adults (eg if they’re attending postsecondary education full time). I know a lot of parents in the situations you describe including one grandmother who is run ragged providing free childcare. I know many people would think it was uncaring but is it not best to have some kind of contract in these situations? My parents have never given me money as a gift but they did give me a small loan once and we all signed a contract about the terms of repayment which I met. I don’t think a parent should ever give their adult children money out of their retirement fund. They should only do it if they have extra funds and even then, only if they want to. There should be no obligation.

  2. Kathy from CT on October 21, 2016 at 4:42 am

    Excellent article! Somehow or another, we turned into a generation of fixers. For our children, for our aging parents, for others less fortunate in our community. Or at least we (hubby & I) did. We are working very hard to stop doing and start mentoring.

  3. Susan J on October 21, 2016 at 8:11 am

    I’ve seen families split due to aiding and supporting one adult child over the others. If you are going to help, then there should be terms. In writing. That would supersede to your will so a war doesn’t erupt when you are no longer around. We helped our kids at different times for different reasons while they were in university but it has all been paid back which is what we laid out when they came to us. This is real life. My husband and I came from families where there was no money to be had from our parents. Lots of entitlement now comes from how our generation has raised their children.

  4. Robert on October 21, 2016 at 8:23 am

    The key phrase in this piece (at least for me…) is: Parents do not owe their children the lifestyle they may have become accustomed to.

    There is “offering help” then there is “creating dependence” – doing the first – probably good, doing the second – probably bad. For both parties involved.

  5. rhonda on October 21, 2016 at 9:20 am

    Great article. Very hard to put into action.Wish there was a third party with no ties to the family to explain the concept to him.That way I do not have to feel guilt.
    Do you feel a good start might be setting a budget and not going over, unless there is an emergency.
    As well, you did not touch on adult children who are bi polar and cannot hold a job,or even get a job.He collects welfare which covers rent and some extras, but it is so far below the poverty line that I cannot let him go without food,and a bus pass, and some other things.Looking forward to yours and your readers comments, and suggestions.

  6. Grant on October 21, 2016 at 9:34 am

    Don’t make the mistake of consigning for a car loan. It can end up being your loan

  7. AndewGr on October 21, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Another way of helping, which my parents did with me, is to setup a line of credit or loan that the parents help by co-signing, but then the adult child needs to pay back. This gives some financial leverage for everyone and only falls back to the parents if they completely fall through on paying it back. It mitigates complete assistance just being handed over and responsibility to the adult child is more visible and can be tracked until repaid. It also becomes a method that won’t cause favouritism/squabbling among siblings.

  8. Gary @ Super Saving Tips on October 21, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    The most important way to help adult children is to give them good solid advice. You want to teach them how to be independent, not how to rely on you. Hopefully, you’ve been teaching them how to be independent all along, but sometimes those lessons need to be learned again and again. I’ve been in the position of having my adult child ask for help regularly while not doing what they should be to help themselves. It’s hard to say no, but I wouldn’t be doing them any favors by enabling them.

  9. KC on October 24, 2016 at 7:41 am

    Here’s a perspective from the other side. I was one of those adult children whom my parents helped me out.

    Let me explain. I was fortunate that they helped me out with my additional education after university when I had a low-income job of which 70% went towards my rent (I lived in a city where rent was sky-high and no, moving out was not an option at that time). Not a good time but I paid them back years later.
    When I lost my job unexpectedly, they’ve helped cover me while I was on EI as my EI was based on my crappy low-income job so while my EI covered my rent, I had exactly $1 left for food or transit so my parents loaned me money so that I can go to job interview, have food in my stomach, etc. I eventually paid them back. There were a few other times where they did help me out because of the timing and lack of money from low-income job while I was trying to work my way up in the company. They’ve only done this because they genuinely did not want to see me suffer as they did but I was fortunate in having a good relationship with them. If I didn’t, they would not have lent me a single penny. With that said, they’ve only loaned me what they could afford without affecting their lifestyle and I’ve always paid them back with interest.

    Bottom line, sometimes you just have to help out adult children as long as there is a genuine need and they display an honest attempt in trying to get back on their feet. Now, I’m in a much better position and anytime my parents need something (furnace breaks down, flooding in their basement, etc), I don’t hesitate to help them out (without them asking) because they’ve helped me out when I really needed it.

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