5 tips on financially helping your parents in your 20s and 30s

While in college, I regularly gave money to my grandmother Big Mama to help with some expenses. I would pay for her groceries if we shopped together or cover a utility bill every so often.

In my late 20s, I started paying her property taxes each year. Big Mama would never have asked for financial assistance, but I knew it would provide her with some relief. She was a great money manager, but she lived on a small pension, and Social Security meant there wasn’t much extra in her budget.

I hate the jokes about young adults “failing to launch” because they live with their parents. They are often unfairly characterized as financially undeveloped if they aren’t living under their own rented roofs. Never mind that the cost of living is so high in some areas that such independence is strangling their short- and long-term goals.

Let adult children fend for themselves? That’s outdated in today’s economy.

But would it surprise you to know that a substantial percentage of people in their 20s live at home not just to save money for themselves but to help out their parents?

In its latest survey on the financial well-being of American households, the Federal Reserve reported that 33 percent of adults 22 to 24 said they lived at home to provide financial assistance to their parents. It jumps to 42 percent among 25- to 29-year-olds who reside with their parents. This has been a growing trend for the younger group: In 2017, 17 percent of adults 22 to 24 said they were living at home to provide financial assistance.

The 10th annual Fed survey of household economics and decision-making, conducted in the fourth quarter of last year, allowed participants to select multiple answers about their housing situation. So, I should note most adults (90 percent) in their early 20s (22 to 24 years old) lived with their parents to save money. The percentage drops to 87 percent for those 25 to 29.

The Fed noted 60 percent of adults 30 to 59 living with their parents said they did so to provide financial support.

But for young adults just starting out, having to tap their limited resources to care for aging parents can be a heavy burden. If you’re in this category and feeling that pinch, here are five things you should and shouldn’t do.

Press your parents for financial information

The younger you are, the harder it may be to ask your parents about their financial situation. The role reversal can be uncomfortable. But you must know to assess how long your help may be needed.

If they need your assistance to pay the mortgage every month, perhaps they can no longer afford their home. Maybe it’s time for them to move or downsize. Or, maybe living at home and sharing expenses is your long-term plan. Either way, talk about it.

Communication is so critical when you are depending on each other. Start the conversation by sharing your budget. Once you’re transparent, hopefully, they will be as well.

If you’re supplementing their budget, you have a right to know the full extent of the shortfall. How long do they expect help? What happens if you move out? How will they survive? You need answers to these questions.

As one caregiver told me, it’s important to communicate with your parents about their finances before a crisis hits. Maintenance is always cheaper than the cleanup.

The sandwich generation is changing. The stress remains.

If you’re living at home and see your parent or parents behaving recklessly with their money, it may be time to let them grow up. Cut the cord. Or, at least decide how much you can afford to help and contribute only that amount.

Helping your parents is a good thing. Enabling bad financial behavior is not.

Get some therapy if the pressure is too intense to handle on your own.

If you want more personal finance advice that’s timeless, order your copy of Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones.

Don’t go into debt to help

For goodness sake, don’t put your own finances in jeopardy by borrowing to rescue a parent. Racking up credit card debt or co-signing on a loan for them may not end well for you.

Don’t damage your financial future by saddling yourself with debt that will drag you down or impede your ability to set up your own household eventually. This will be tough — because you feel the tug of responsibility — but only commit to what you can afford.

Don’t sacrifice your savings goals

Sacrificing your retirement savings or financial goals to help support a parent reminds me of the instructions the flight attendants give just before takeoff.

Airline passengers are always instructed to put on their oxygen masks first, even if traveling with a child.

At first, this seems selfish.

However, if you’re gasping for air and pass out, you cannot help somebody else.

Senior care is crushingly expensive. Boomers aren’t ready.

There is a network of professionals who can assist you in managing your parents’ care. AARP is a good place to find information about such services; go to aarp.org and click on the link for “caregiving.”

There’s also the Eldercare Locator (eldercare.acl.gov or 800-677-1116). This is a nationwide service set up by the U.S. Administration on Aging that connects seniors and their caregivers with public and private services. Once on the site, click the link for “Support Services.”

Research financial aid programs. For instance, my grandmother qualified for a discount on her property taxes. But I had to pester her to fill out the paperwork. She was afraid the city would somehow take her home. Eventually, I persuaded her that it would help us both if her property taxes were reduced because of her limited income.

The National Council on Aging has the BenefitsCheckUp tool (benefitscheckup.org) to help connect you to programs that may be able to help pay for your parents’ prescription drugs or assist with rent or utilities.

B.O.M. — The best of Michelle Singletary on personal finance

If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

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