Personal Finance

Michelle Singletary: Helping your adult children learn to fly

I heard from quite a few readers about a column I wrote on helping young adults, especially recent college graduates.

I always appreciate the feedback, so I’ve decided on occasion to let folks argue their points in the Color of Money “Talk Back” feature.

To recap, I suggested, among other things, that it’s okay to allow a recent grad to live rent-free while he or she saves. I don’t think parents should charge rent if an adult child is living at home with an aggressive plan to pay off student loans.

I’m all for helping your children leave the nest. But if you can afford to help them before they launch, it’s not going to stifle their independence if they are otherwise financially responsible.

“My parents would be rolling over in their graves at the thought of me or my siblings living at home, especially without paying room and board,” one anonymous reader wrote. “While living at home during my junior and senior years of high school, and during the summer when I was in college, my mother insisted that I pay her room and board. It was not much, $30 a month, but relative to what I was making, it represented a significant loss to my college fund. It used to be the case that parents were relieved when we left the nest after graduation from high school, either to go to school, into the military, to work. They felt that they had done their jobs, and it would have been an affront to them were we to move back in with them, except in cases of grave necessity.”

Bob from Rockville was pretty succinct: “Two job offers coming out of college, took one with an insurance company. Salary was $3,660 per year. Lived in YMCA and no car. No thinking of help from parents except later loan to buy a used car.”

To sum up, some people believe we parents should shove graduates out on their own. Got a degree? Well, time to get out. It will build character. Graduates will become better money managers if they suffer and struggle.

Or maybe they will accumulate debt, or more debt. My advice isn’t intended to suggest that you blindly support your young adult — and certainly not one who may need some tough love. But your children have a lifetime ahead of them to fly on their own. In some species of birds, the young stay in the nest until they are strong fliers.

Times are different. The financial protections that may have been in place in the past are largely gone. Pensions, for example, have become a rare safety net. Who knows how much Social Security will change by the time they can collect it? Affordable housing is a major concern in many parts of the country.

Absolutely be cautious about your assistance if your child is irresponsible. But we ought to be more compassionate about helping young adults financially establish themselves. If you can’t help with money, a cheap or rent-free roof for a few years while they save will give them a better start in life.

Finally, I want to address a question from a parent of a college student. She wrote: “My daughter is now a rising junior, scholar athlete, who gets a generous weekly allowance from me during the school year. Her tuition is paid in full by scholarships and grants and she cannot work during the school year. She will be employed all summer with a job that provides a transit subsidy. I have typically given her enough of an allowance to cover necessities, and she has unlimited access to gas for the car. Should she pay for her own gas? Should I stop giving her a summer allowance? I want to get her to understand expenses and take these small steps to independence.”

Yes, I believe in this case the child should pay for gas and summer expenses because she has a job and her school tuition is covered. It is a good opportunity to teach her how to budget.

My advice would be different if the student were working as an unpaid intern. If you can afford to cover some expenses, an unpaid internship would encourage her to get work experience in her field, which in turn will help her find a job when she graduates.

If you can’t afford such help, then your child may have to get a part-time job in addition to taking an unpaid internship.

My philosophy with my own children is to give enough support so that they can fly away and stay gone. I do want my nest back.

Hear Michelle Singletary’s personal finance reports on www.npr.org. Readers may write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20081.

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