A new budget item: Taking care of grown kids

Are you balancing your budget?

Forget the sandwich generation, Americans household seems more like a turducken these days. 

A survey released on Monday by Bank of America Merrill Lynch reveals that it's even more common now to see a grandparents finances wrapped around their grown children, who then may also need help with their own young children.  One in five parents aged 50 and above have at least one adult child who has moved back home.  And more than two-thirds of parents in that age group have given money to their kids within the past five years.  How much money?  How about a grand total averaging nearly $15,000? 

That’s a lot of gravy.  But here's an even more alarming stat:  Nearly 90 percent of respondents say that they have never budgeted or prepared to help support adult family members, whether a grown child or an aging parent. 

We have enough trouble saving for ourselves (most Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck and have less than $25,000 in retirement savings) -- and we ultimately have our own concerns as we age (Hello, $250,000+ healthcare bill in retirement!) Now imagine that, on top of an emergency fund and retirement savings, we need to budget for chipping in to help our grown kids -- plus pony up some funds for our aging parents.  Sheesh.

Culturally, for many of us, multi-generational households are the norm.  It’s normal to have abuela live with you and help take care of your kids. It’s normal to help her with the cost of her medications, as well as try to help a cousin with the cost of books for college, as it would be for my family.  But the only plus-side of ‘normal’ in this equation is that you learn to expect that your money will end up someone else’s money — an adult family member — therefore, even if you don’t add it to your balance sheet, you’re not surprised. 

But, for many Americans this is a big surprise.  And our economy is changing in terms of its ability to pay wages in line with profits and the once dreamlike ability to count on a college degree to get you the best jobs out there.  So this new reality is quite an adjustment.  How to plan when we can barely plan for our own financial future?

This holiday season, when you’re likely to see your family, be all ears.  No head-in-the-sand here.  Be very aware of who may need help and where the burden is most likely to lie.  You may not like the fact that your siblings figure that you’ll pitch in the most to help your father financially, but if you see things swinging your way, get a quick grip on how much helping will cost you and figure out where that help falls in your budget. 

And if you’ve had adult kids move back in or ask for financial help, ask yourself:  At what cost are you supporting them?  Will they support you when you need their help as you get older?  Are they taking strides to better themselves and their ability to earn so they can get out of your budget, ASAP?  If not, it’s time to talk tough turkey.

After all, aging parents have little or no earning potential, so helping upward makes sense though it can be painful in many ways.  But an adult child should have a limit on that kind of ‘love’.  The tables can turn all too quickly and then who will you turn to?

Limits are as good for supporting loved ones as they are for potatoes and gravy.  And sometimes, you’ve just got to make (and eat) your own bread.

About the author

Carmen Wong Ulrich is the former host of Marketplace Money, APM’s weekend personal finance program.

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