From Retirement is Blocked by the Revolving Door

I did an informal poll at the office asking the following question: if you had adult children (say age 30), would you want them to live with you, or would you encourage them to get out and be independent? The answer was overwhelmingly for independence, and one man even said he’d feel like a failure if they returned home. Everyone who was available today was under 45 years old, and few actually have adult children, but their answers were interesting. Our culture fosters independence. I asked the financial planners what they were hearing in their one-on-one meetings with pre-retirees and I heard a different twist. The employees feel that they have no choice but to help out their family members during these tough economic times, and it was a drain on their finances. In an ideal world, while preparing for retirement you wouldn’t have this additional expense, but then again we are not living in an ideal world.

The planners heard these stories:

“My daughter is a very hard worker and has three jobs. Yet she never seems to get ahead. She got her wallet stolen at the pool yesterday and the thief left her wallet and ID but took her cash and her credit cards. Fifty dollars may not seem like much to some people, but it was a lot to my daughter. Couple that with no access to a credit card when she had $200 worth of school expenses (she is a teacher) and she won’t be able to make her rent. I had to loan her $400 to get by. I was not expecting that expense and it was not a trivial amount.”

“My son is working and going to school and having trouble making ends meet. When a necessary expense comes up for my ten year old granddaughter, what am I supposed to say? I can’t say no. It now costs $89 to register her for public school because I am in a state that is broke and my son doesn’t have the money. Now as a grandmother, I am ending up paying for the necessary things instead of the fun things.”

One of the biggest challenges of retirement planning is to estimate your future expenses. We assume housing costs may go down in retirement, when your mortgage is paid off and medical costs will rise, so at least some estimates can be done. Unplanned and unpredictable high and recurring expenses, such as assisting adult children and grandchildren, can certainly prevent the parent from being able to retire.

This is a growing phenomenon. As I mentioned in a blog a few weeks ago, the number of adult children between the ages of 25 and 34 living with their parents has exploded in recent years, going from a little over 10% in 2003 to 13% in 2010. Unemployment certainly is a big factor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate for 20-24 year olds in 2010 was 15.5% and for 25-29 year olds it was 10.9%. With the economy struggling to produce jobs, this is a problem that pre-retirees with adult children and grandchildren can’t ignore.

Many will argue that families should take care of each other and that is what family is for. In other cultures, families have been living together in multi-generational households for centuries, so we are the odd culture in encouraging our family members to live separately. That may all be true, but the key isn’t so much where they live, it is the support they need when the pre-retiree still has to fund their own retirement, and that support is often an unexpected high expense. The challenge is to manage the pull of caring for your family without sacrificing your own retirement.

Ideas on how to help adult children without going broke:

Rethink your emergency fund. Carry a high emergency fund balance even in retirement. We normally think of the emergency fund to replace 3 – 6 months of income if you lose your job. In retirement, we used to be able to keep less in liquid savings because of steady retirement income. Consider keeping additional liquid dollars available for unexpected expenses.

Lend rather than give. The teaching goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” A gift or a hand out can turn into a steady stream of support. Lend your children money with a clear payback structure at a low interest rate rather than a hand out. This sets a clear boundary with your adult children and shows mutual respect.

Ask that they contribute. If they are living with you, ask that they contribute to the household by paying rent and helping with other household expenses. Even if the rent is a nominal amount, it sets up an expectation and lessens any financial drain on you. Set a time limit if that is appropriate under the circumstances.

Make sure they make the most of the situation. This is a time for them to improve their financial literacy by sticking to a bare-bones budget, getting out of debt and living within their means. Financial lessons they learn from the economic downturn can be an incredible opportunity for them to realize how valuable the cash flow of a job is or how expensive it is just to run a household.

Don’t sacrifice your own financial future. In our college planning workshops, we always remind parents there are no grants or scholarships for retirement. Set limits with your children if you plan on helping them or supporting them until they get their feet on the ground. Determine what you can afford and have a meeting with your child to make it very clear.

During the Great Depression families stuck together and they did without. Stella Anderson is 97 years old today, and she is one of six sisters who grew up on an almond ranch in Northern California. During the depression, her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college (they sent her older sisters before her) but she didn’t complain. She delayed her education, stayed at home and helped out on the ranch for two years before moving on to obtain her college degree. She and her parents took the practical approach and did what they could at the time. That kind of practical mentality will serve our families well today while getting through tough times together. It may even make the family bonds stronger. Plus, in your later years, you can lean on them like they leaned on you. That is what family is for.

by Liz Davidson link to article here


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