Is It Time for Financial Tough Love in Your Family? by Mrs. Lynne

I want to address a common issue these days for “empty nester” parents.  How much and in what forms do you financially help your adult children?  Over the last two years, this has been our experience. 

First, let me tell you about us.  My husband is in his late sixties, and retired from law enforcement and is living on a pension.  He was diagnosed with throat cancer last year and with God’s grace and first class medical treatment, he is doing all right.   I have a good job in a medium size city.  I am in my mid-fifties.  We live in a modest home on a suburban acre.  We have been married 24 years in a second marriage and our children are from our first marriages.

Here are the kids (most are in their mid-thirties):

#1 Son, Spouse and Teen-Age Son
Seems to be doing all right financially with two incomes in a rental.  We paid $800 in electric bills in the past to catch them up during a period of unemployment.

#2 Son, unmarried
He has been disabled for over a year with back trouble.  He had recent back surgery and applied for Social Security disability.  We paid $1,100 this year to catch up on his expenses.

#3 Son, Spouse and two small children
Two incomes, but one is extremely sporadic. They are underwater on home mortgage to the tune of about $75,000.  We recently paid $675 to catch up on two of their truck payments.  Recent requests for money have been $1,500 for truck repairs and $2,562 to catch up on two late house payments.  They are unwilling to change lifestyle in any way and we have had to push hard to get him to look for more reliable employment. 

#1 Daughter, Spouse, and no children
Financially secure in every way.

#4 Son, Separated with one small child
Major substance abuse problems here.  We are still paying on a loan for his last re-hab stint. (That cost $13,000.)  We paid his rent for an entire year (at $740 per month), bought a van for his wife ($4,000) and gave him a car ($5,000) so he could get back and forth to a new job.

What I want to address is “financial survival” in the face of needy adult children.

 First of all, here are the issues:

  • Kids “keep track” of what the other adult children have been given.  Parents try to make it even.  It is impossible.  Paying rent so your one-year-old granddaughter has a place to live doesn’t necessarily guarantee understanding on the part of some of the other kids even though they did have a place to live.  Our situation is exacerbated somewhat because our kids are from two different marriages.
  • Yes, your grandkids will be used against you.  I can’t tell you how it makes you feel when an adult child tells his father “I used my last forty dollars to buy my kids some food.” 
  • Resentment on our part, as parents.  We try to help financially, but we resent lifestyle choices made by our kids.  Why should we pay a truck payment when two smokers ($10 per day habits ) could quit smoking and probably could make their own truck payment?  We don’t want to be involved in lifestyle choices of our children and we should not have to. 

The constant phone calling for financial help has taken a toll on my husband.  Even during his cancer treatment, I could not get one adult child to stop calling him despite my repeated requests.  I don’t harbor very good feelings for this child even today, a full year later.

So what is the answer?  What is needed is financial tough love.  Literally, the demand for money one week from two different family units was more than my entire take-home-pay for two weeks.  My husband and I sat down and said “enough!”  We have our own mortgage to pay, a car payment, utilities, et cetera.  We can’t as a financial entity support another family easily.  We did that for an entire year and are still trying to recover.

We came to several conclusions.

Our financial security is paramount.  We have nine more years to pay on our mortgage and our house is an important component of our retirement plan, if things last that long.  Our best course of action long-term is to own our home free and clear.  We do not want to be a burden to our children and frankly most of our children are not in a position to help us anyway.  The best thing we can do for everyone is take care of ourselves.  Our home may end up being the only place for several family members to live in the future.

Using our resources to help adult children who refuse to change their lifestyle is ill-advised.  As long as Mom and Dad continue to help financially, there is no reason to make any changes.  I would have done almost anything to avoid asking my parents for financial help and I never did.  I am grateful that they paid for my college education thirty years ago and I have worked hard my entire adult life.  I know times have changed and maybe working hard just isn’t always enough these days, but it has always worked for me.

Son #3 is about 57% underwater on his house.  No equity loans here, he just bought at the height of the market.  I see the writing on the wall on this one.   Nobody wants to go bankrupt, but it happens and only working five hours a week can make it happen pretty fast.  If you can help someone out financially during a short-term blip that is one thing, but when it becomes a chronic, insurmountable issue then you have to cut your losses.  What is worse than one family going bankrupt? Two families going bankrupt

We love our grandkids, but we have to demand that their parents provide for their basic needs.  If that means you take a second job, then find a better job, ditch the cell phones and cable, or get rid of one of your cars; then we expect you to do it.   We took care of you while you were growing up and we expect you to do the same for your children.

Finally, let’s talk about adult children with substance abuse issues.  It is a bottomless hole financially and emotionally.  Throw a pregnancy in the mix and it becomes the worst sort of blackmail.  Parents do their best to fix the problem.  You can provide all kinds of resources; re-hab in various forms, money, doctors, therapists, attorneys…and the list goes on and on.  Ten years later, we are spent financially and emotionally with our #4 son.  I always remember a scene in the movie A River Runs Through It.  The character played by Brad Pitt was beaten to death over unpaid gambling debts.  The pastor father is talking about his son during a sermon.   He remarks that that often times you don’t know what help to give someone and even if you do; they do not want the help anyway.  We finally had to give this issue over to God. 

So, when you can’t provide financial resources to your adult children anymore, then what can you do?

Well, first of all you can provide emotional support.  Not advice, unless they ask for it….just emotional support.  We helped with a resume and sent job leads that we found.  When the inevitable requests for more money came in, we simply told them that if we used our emergency funds to help them, our financial security would be in jeopardy.  We are not rich people and it is all right to convey that to your adult children.

Second, if things get dire, we told them that we would provide them a home with us for a limited period of time while they get back on their feet. They will have a place to live, food to eat and basic utilities.    Traditionally, multi-generational households were common, so we should certainly be able to do it successfully for a limited period of time.  Not having a house payment or paying rent should help adult children settle other debts and save up for a new living arrangement.

Third, we have not shared our views on the coming economic collapse with some of our children.  This has been a shortcoming on our part.  We are continuing to prepare as best we can and we are going to share our views with everyone from now on. We live fairly frugally, and need to use aspects of our lifestyle and experience as teaching moments.

Lastly, let go of the guilt.  When my decade old car finally gave out, I hesitated to get a replacement.  Why?  I was worried one child would say, “Well, I see that you can afford to get another car but you won’t help me out.”  That child probably did think that, but I still needed a vehicle to get back and forth to work. That was simple reality. 

We love our children and some of them have mighty big warts.  We have our warts too.  Doing right by your children sometimes means you have to say “No” to them.  Protect your financial security by deciding how much and in what forms you can help your adult children. [JWR Adds: After some deliberation and concerted prayer, it is important to set limits, and then stand by them.]