A Roof Over Their Heads
Luci de Haan, a spokesperson for AARP New York, cites studies showing that 23 percent of households have a post-college-age child in residence. In the New York Metro region, parental homes sheltering grown children range from modest apartments in the outer boroughs to condos and brownstones in Park Slope and the Upper East Side.
The children, who may initially be reluctant to relinquish independence by moving home, may quickly become all too comfortable falling back into familiar behavior patterns. “Mom wants to know when I’m going out, where I’m going, and when I’m coming back, even when I’m just going to the mall,” complains 25-year-old Lillian of Cambria Heights. “I’m getting used to it—but when I was in college and grad school in Boston, I didn’t have to report to anyone.”
Lillian’s younger sister Maryam moved back home after receiving her nursing degree in North Carolina. “Nurses are paid more in New York City,” she says, “than down south.” While she initially thought of giving her mother regular payments of $200 a month, she never did. “I need my money for clothes and going out with my friends,” she says, even as she complains that “Mom watches me to see if I’m spending my money wisely. She thinks I’m spending too much on clothes.” While Isabel closely monitors her daughters’ spending, she feels that their full participation in household chores makes up for any failure to contribute financially.
Perhaps the often unspoken question that looms largest in many familes is, “How long do you expect to be here?” Every expert interviewed for this article emphasized the importance of addressing this question early, even if the answer may need to change down the road. “Put thought into it before the kid arrives with a suitcase,” says Karen Altfest, vice president of Altfest Personal Wealth Management in New York City.
The length-of-stay issue began to rankle the parents in Ramsey, New Jersey, almost immediately. Larry’s mom assumed that the kids would move out after they were married. But a deadline was never discussed, and today, months after their May wedding, they are still in residence. Sally feels incapable of discussing the issue. Instead she plans to ask her husband to take Larry out on the golf course for a man-to-man talk.
Without discussion, meanwhile, some “children” may have unrealistic expectations. Lillian, fully recovered now from surgery, told me her goal “is about six years, or until I have enough money saved to buy a house.”
Issues on the Table
“Parents must realize that the adult child who comes back is a new person,” de Haan points out, “and not the 18-year-old child who went off to college. At the same time,” she continues, “the child must understand the parents’ need for privacy.”
This is no small matter. An online poll conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education (see sidebar) queried parents who had adult children aged 18 to 29 not in school. Thirty percent who responded said “they have given up privacy since their adult children have moved back home.” “Privacy” can mean simply being able to lie down quietly for a few moments. Yet Isabel criticizes Lillian’s “lack of respect” because she doesn’t want to chat as soon as she comes in. And then there are the parents who describe lack of privacy as “having to always have clothes on” in their own home.
You also want to think through the practical arrangements. Is the child’s former room still available? Perhaps it has been converted, by now, to an entertainment center or an art studio or a bedroom for another child. Perhaps you’ve even downsized to another home. However you solve this problem, it’s generally a big mistake to give up your bedroom to your adult child—even if that “child” now includes a spouse and a couple of kids.
Both generations have to resist falling back into earlier versions of the parent-and-child relationship. Parents, Pfeiffer insists, “must remember that we’re now supposed to be a helper and consultant, but not the primary provider. Having serious expectations for your children,” she continues, “is not contradictory with being a loving parent.”
Children should expect to contribute something in return. Pitching in with household chores, without the grumbling or the incessant delays of teenagers, may be an adequate substitute for paying rent. Running errands or chauffeuring younger siblings may be a big help to harried parents. Communication, as adults, is the key to sorting it all out.
In the end, as Sally says wistfully, “maybe the nest will empty again.”
Grace W. Weinstein is the author of Men, Women and Money and a dozen other books on personal finance and relationships. She was a columnist for The Financial Times and Good Housekeeping and has written for many national magazines.