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How to stop financially supporting your adult kids — and feel OK about it

Cutting the money cord can be difficult, but if you’re risking your own financial security, it’s crucial.
Image: Son helping senior father paying bills at laptop
If helping your adult kids is affecting your retirement goals, make a game plan for how to best reduce or eliminate that financial aid.Hero Images / Getty Images

Saving for retirement? You might want to have a look at how much you’re spending on your kids — not the little ones, but the adults.

A recent report from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that parents are spending a combined $500 billion on their grown kids (ages 18 to 35) — double what they’re putting towards their own retirement.

According to the study, 79 percent of parents are helping their adult children in some financial way — whether it’s for their weddings, their cell phone bills or groceries.

Cutting the money cord can be difficult — especially if, as a parent, you’re watching your kid struggle with debt (as the majority of millennials do) — but if you’re risking your own financial security, it’s crucial to close (or at least radically reduce) parental funding.

We talked to financial planners and therapists to get the best tips for handling this crucial transition.

You may have enabled an unhealthy dependency

“I have found in my practice that parents have been somewhat to blame in enabling adult children to remain financially dependent,” says James J. Ciprich, a certified financial planner with RegentAtlantic. “Often it starts right out of college and continues to a point where the adult children are even 10 to 15 years away from their own retirement. The problem is that parents in or nearing retirement may have enabled this practice without setting aside enough to enjoy their own retirement years or set aside additional funds for future healthcare-related costs.”

How did this problem begin? Probably from a place of love, but also from a place of painful attachment.

“I've had a few patients that have difficulty putting up financial boundaries with their children,” says Dr. Laura F. Dabney, MD, a psychiatrist and relationship therapist. “This is usually caused by the parents having a difficult time letting go of their child. When we refuse to let go, we prevent our children from learning the skills needed to be successful in life. We are hurting, not helping.”

When we refuse to let go, we prevent our children from learning the skills needed to be successful in life. We are hurting, not helping.

You may have only meant the best by helping your kids financially, but enabling dependency only prevents them from becoming healthy, self-reliant adults.

“A parent’s role is to care for their children until they can take care of themselves,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist and author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Steps to Crush your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love”. “By continuing to give them money, you are preventing them from growing up.”

Make a timeline for reducing or eliminating support

If helping your kids is affecting your retirement goals, make a game plan for how to best reduce or eliminate financial aid. Be mindful not to pull the rug out from under their feet, but to inch it out gradually.

"Before you have a formal conversation with your adult kid, spend some time thinking through and talking with your partner [if you’re co-parenting] about when you want to officially cut the cord,” says Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC, therapist and life coach. “No matter how much money you're giving your child, you're going to want to give them some lead time to prepare for this change. The length of time will really depend on how much you're giving them each month. [If you’re giving them] a couple of hundreds dollars a month, then a month or two should be sufficient. If you're completely supporting them, then they'll need six months to a year of notice.”

Ideally, you want your child to be in a better financial place by time the plug has been fully pulled. But that may not materialize.

“The really hard part [is to] stop giving your child money by the deadline even if they are not in a better financial position,” says Patti B. Black, CFP and partner at Bridgeworth Financial.

Explain that this is not a punishment — but a way of helping

Once you have your game plan mapped out, it’s time to have the big talk with your kids. As Brigham points out, you know your kid best, so come up with an approach that they’ll ideally respond to (e.g., whether this is better to do on the phone or in person).

However you go about this, you should clearly communicate to kids that this choice isn’t a punishment or a sign that you’re disappointed in them.

"Start the conversation by explaining you're not doing this to punish them in any way but to help them thrive and be independent,” says Brigham. “Most kids want to be independent and do not want to be completely supported by their parents. Share with them how proud you are of everything they have already accomplished and that you wouldn't be doing this if you didn't believe they had the ability to support themselves."

Give them a couple days to process this news

While you’re not firing your kids, it may feel something like that from their perspective. “Give your kid some time and space to process everything,” says Brigham. “You've had a few days to think about all of this and they are just getting the news. Give them some space to take it all in and be prepared for both positive and negative responses to this new plan.”

Be supportive in other ways

Cutting the cord doesn’t mean severing the parent-child bond. Let your kids know that you’re still there for them in terms of emotional support, and if willing, offer to help them strategize ways to generate more income.

"Ask your kid how you can support them through this process, other than financial support,” says Brigham. “Do they want your help in terms of looking for a job or possibly a higher paying job? Do they want you to call some of your friends about networking opportunities? Be OK with them saying 'no' and telling you they can do it on their own.”

You’ve been generous. Now you have to focus on yourself

“Feeling okay about cutting the purse strings off from your adult children depends a lot on how you've been dealing with this issue until now,” says Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, a family therapist with Baltimore Therapy Center.

“If you feel you've been generous thus far, if you've tried to help your kids to a reasonable extent given your own financial situation, if you've given them the tools to be successful on their own, then you can remind yourself that you've fulfilled your responsibility and then some,” Bilek says. “Parents are not required to support children who are able-minded for their entire lives. You have a right to take care of your own needs. Although every parents wants to help their children as much as (and perhaps more than) they possibly can, there is no need to feel guilty about saving your money for taking care of your own needs.”


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