The financial fallout from the COVID-19 crisis has brought a big truth even more into focus: Parents want to protect and support their kids, even if they’re all grown up. Forty-one percent of adults who’ve had to move due to the pandemic are bunking with mom and dad, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
If your children are experiencing a financial setback right now, you may feel compelled to step in and offer help. But before you open your wallet — or your home — ask yourself this important question: How can you lend a helping hand without sacrificing your own financial health?
Here’s a look at five things to consider if you’re providing financial support to adult children.
SAFEGUARD YOUR NEST EGG
“It’s easy to want to give so much, even at your own expense,” says Jennifer Hartstein, a psychologist who specializes in family dynamics. “Parents feel as though it is their job to make their children’s lives easier and more manageable. Unfortunately, doing so can be at your own ruin.”
If you don’t have the cash to help out your children, you may be tempted to dip into your retirement accounts to help your kids, but doing so could ultimately cripple your own long-term plans. Pulling funds out of your retirement account now means potentially losing out on future returns when the market eventually rebounds.
Plus, taking a distribution from your 401(k) or traditional IRA will trigger a tax bill and a 10 percent penalty if you’re under 59½.
The point is to make sure you’re showing them that your financial life matters, too. “It’s following the message you get on the airplane: Put the oxygen mask over your own face first, then share it with someone in need,” Hartstein says.
SET GROUND RULES EARLY ON
If your adult child boomerangs back home during this crisis, be mindful of falling back into old patterns of the family dynamic. Hartstein warns that a glimmer of your child’s younger self could make an appearance, so to prevent conflict and set the stage for mutual respect, set guidelines for everyone from the get-go. For instance, are you expecting them to contribute to the household? If so, what does that look like?
This same line of thinking should apply to any other form of support, like covering their rent for a few months. Be very clear whether this is a loan or a gift and establish boundaries so that you aren’t putting your own financial health on the line.
“Communication is incredibly important during such a challenging time, especially when everyone’s emotions are running at heightened levels,” Hartstein says. “Talking about these things as soon as possible can help decrease conflict. Make sure your kids understand the rules and expectations.”
HOLD YOUR KIDS ACCOUNTABLE
Once the ground rules are established, follow-through is key. The idea is to offer your financial support in a way that makes you feel in control and comfortable. Otherwise, you could be creating an unhealthy dependency.
This brings us to the elephant-in-the-room: What is your child’s plan for getting back on their feet? If they’re suffering through unemployment, what active steps are they taking to find work? The best way to offer support may be to invest in your child. For example, rather than cutting them a check, perhaps you’re able to cover the cost of a career coach.
Accountability and sticking to your ground rules can also help prevent codependency. If the original agreement was that your child would move out by a certain date, and that date has come and gone, it may be time to start charging them rent.
COURSE-CORRECT WHEN NECESSARY
Despite your best intentions, supporting an adult child can backfire if you haven’t established healthy boundaries from the beginning. If you’re learning this the hard way, go easy on yourself. Hartstein says it’s more than possible to get back on the right track.
“When anxiety was at an all-time high, agreeing to having your adult children come home seemed like a no-brainer,” she says. “Now, many months in, it may feel like a burden.”
Hartstein recommends calling a family meeting to discuss how things are going. This is an opportunity to share your feelings, clarify your expectations and essentially right the ship.
“Rules can change at any time,” she adds. “It just requires a good conversation. Not having that will breed resentment that can be avoided.”
DITCH THE GUILT
Looking out for your own financial and emotional health can trigger feelings of guilt. Hartstein says if this sounds familiar, take a minute to ask yourself if this emotion is really justified.
“Asking your child to leave may be what is needed for everyone to start to return to a place of normalcy — and may be what is best for your relationship in the long term,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. You’re also modeling for your child how to do that for themselves.”