Washington Let me ask you: When should parents turn off the financial spigot for adult children?
Usually during the holiday season, I get a lot of questions about what to give someone for Christmas or how much to spend. This year the questions focus mostly on how and when to help someone out. The notes are particularly heartfelt from parents, many of whom are also in a bind. A lot of adult children now dealing with unemployment or college loans or unbearable credit-card debt are beelining it to their parents.
I received a note during an online discussion from a mother struggling to determine if it’s time to cut off her subsidies to her 22-year-old son, who is attending college.
The mother says she’s borrowed $125,000 to cover tuition and off-campus housing for her son, who is an out-of-state student. He has been in school since 2006, has received mediocre grades and has had to repeat many of his courses. He recently told his mother he has another three years of school before he can earn his degree.
Oh, and the son is working full time earning $30,000 a year. (This may be contributing to his bad grades.)
“No matter what, he constantly complains he doesn’t have enough money,” the mother wrote. “He doesn’t save anything and then gets mad at me when I tell him ‘no’ or when I explain that I don’t have any money. He’s a good kid. He works hard on his job, but he thinks my money is endless.”
Some of you already know what you would do in this situation. I certainly do. It’s time to cut the purse strings. But some parents can’t do that. They continue to take out large loans so their children can eke through college.
Last March, this 50-year-old mother lost her job after 16 years with the same employer. She’s getting some contract work, but that is due to end next June. She has to start making her own health insurance payments in February.
“I am on shaky ground until I land something permanent,” she said. “My son doesn’t believe that I don’t have money to keep bailing him out.”
The mother’s saving grace has been the severance she received after being laid off. Her son sees that lump sum of cash as an extension of his ATM account.
“I can’t help anymore,” the woman said. “How or what do I do to get him to save and pay his own bills? How do I get him out of my pocket? I’m trying to get ready for retirement in the next 10 to 15 years. He is really sinking me in more and more debt. He thinks I’m Ms. Money Bags. We argue all the time about money. I am fed up with this.”
Good. Being fed up is a first step to cutting him off. The next step is realizing that helping too much can hurt.
“I have obviously done way more than I should have and he doesn’t appreciate it,” she finally admits. “My son is out of control. I thought I was helping, but he has taken my help to a whole other level.”
Bingo. There is a fine line in giving financial assistance. On one side of the line, you shouldn’t withhold aid because someone made bad financial decisions.
But you also can’t let people — even your children — take advantage of your willingness to help if there is plenty of evidence in front of you that they aren’t willing to change and become better money managers or contribute to their own financial well-being.
The mother thinks her son needs to leave school. She’s right. She’s borrowed more than enough for an adult who isn’t doing well in the classroom. Perhaps if he’s forced to pay for his own tuition, he’ll do what it takes to finish in less than six or seven years.
If you are struggling with this issue, shut off the spigot. “No” can be the most powerful word in the language. Use it.