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Sandwich generation feeling the squeeze

If you're helping support grown kids and aging parents, what happens to your own finances?

By Donna_Freedman Feb 4, 2013 12:00PM

The Pew Research Center recently released some scary, scary stats about middle-aged adults:

  • 27% provide primary support for a grown child.
  • 21% have provided financial support to a parent aged 65 or older in the past year.
  • 38% say both their grown children and their parents rely on them for emotional support.

The challenges of the "sandwich generation" aren’t news per se. For several  decades I've been reading about how physically and psychologically exhausting it can be to see the needs of the older and younger generations (while putting your own needs on the back burner).

It's the monetary drain that concerns me. Specifically: If you're helping out parents whose retirement money doesn't stretch far enough, and picking up the slack for your under- or unemployed kids, what happens to your own finances?

The Washington Post wrote about a middle-aged couple supporting two grown kids and worrying about an aging mother. They pay the rent on their 25-year-old daughter's Manhattan apartment while she "prepares to attend law school" and subsidize their 29-year-old son while he teaches English in Spain, and are trying to persuade the wife's 85-year-old mother to move north from Florida to live with them.
"Michelle said she and her husband don't take vacations anymore, just trips to help their children and her mother. Her husband would like to slow down, she said, but is hesitant to retire when they have so many financial obligations," the newspaper noted.

"It's very different from when she reached adulthood. She left home after high school and never returned to live in her parents' home. She was living on her own until she married at age 24.

"'Kids are dependent on parents a lot longer today,' she said. 'I don't know if it has to do with the economy or the way we raise them'."


My guess is that it's both. Salaries aren't keeping pace with inflation even for seasoned workers. Kids who graduate with heavy student loan debt may not be able to make it on entry-level paychecks, especially if they're unwilling to live an entry-level lifestyle. (Hint: Your parents didn't have all that nice stuff right at the start, either. They worked their way up to it.)

Increasingly, though, soft-touch parents have become the soft place to land. Michelle, the woman quoted above, mentioned that the "revolving door" school of parenting is common among her acquaintances: "Kids transition in and out."

That can work well, as long as both parties are clear on what's expected. One dad I know let his 19-year-old daughter live at home for free as long as she took college courses and worked at least part-time. When she stopped doing both, he told her she had to leave.

Some people I've told that story to were horrified: How could he do that to his own child? I see it differently: How could he let her think that the world owed her something?

Talk it over

That Washington couple's situation isn't exactly average -- how many people do you know who could afford payments like that? -- but it illustrates the issue pretty well. Here's what I'd say to them, and to anyone feeling sandwiched: Put on your own oxygen masks first. You can't help anyone unless you're seeing to your own needs sufficiently.

Ideally, before your kids reach adulthood you'll be clear about what you will and won't pay for once they turn 18, such as "You can live here for nothing if you decide to go to college/trade school locally" or "Your college fund will cover four years of school and we'll pay dorm fees for that long -- but no longer."
Logo: Adult with elderly parent (Digital Vision/SuperStock)
You might also have to have this conversation with your aging parents. Scrutinizing their finances may feel like an invasion of privacy, but you need to know whether they have enough for basic expenses plus some creature comforts. If they don't, then you and other family members need to brainstorm other options for elder care.

And if you're already in the thick of it, like the Washington folks? Time to retrofit some boundaries: OK, kids, as of the end of 2013 we will no longer be able to subsidize you. That gives you the rest of the year to figure out a more sustainable way of living.

Incidentally: Those boundaries need to be ultimatums, not lifestyle options.

Saying 'no,' if you must

Putting off your own retirement, or working yourself to death to keep other people comfortably ensconced, is not the right way to do things.

If you need to say "no," then say it. That won't be fun. But it's necessary.

Full disclosure: I supported my own daughter, who has a chronic illness, for a couple of years until her disability claim was approved. To me, that's different from someone who wants to stay up all night playing "World of Warcraft," sleep until mid-afternoon and then sit on the couch eating cereal and watching reality TV shows.

My daughter's story ended well: She eventually found a job she could do from home, with a boss who is flexible about hours, and was able to get off disability. Now she and her husband (who also has chronic health issues) are paying a mortgage -- and supporting his parents, who moved in due to long-term unemployment and impending bankruptcy. Ironic, huh?

As for that late-teens girl who was shown the door by her tough-love papa: She knocked around for a while, rooming with various people, until she realized there was no future in that lifestyle. Now she's in her early 20s and back living with her father and stepmother, taking college classes and working a couple of part-time jobs.

She's also paying rent. Now that it's expected of her, guess what? She finds the money every single month.

Are you helping support an older or younger relative? Got any tips to share?

More on MSN Money:

Feb 4, 2013 12:55PM

I am in a very blessed an unique situation. My wife is in ther sophmore year of college, we send my mother $340 a month to help with her low income situation (section-8) and my oldest son is going to begin college in 1.5 years, and we are saving for a house. Also, my wife is a resident manager but I have a regular job. We could not do all this if it was not for my wife's job. I tell my wife we will need to cut off my mother but she says we can't. My mother raised me. I call my mom my car payment. She even asked me for a raise (LOL). I said no.


I feel for our generation. My mother did not handle her finances correctly. She spent, spent, and spent. Now she struggles every month. No, we can not live together. She refuses to live by the rules I have in my home. So, I guess this is the alternative.


If anyone has any wisdom to share, I am open ears.

Feb 4, 2013 8:55PM
I was raised to understand the value of a dollar, how to make a dollar stretch, and that money doesn't go on trees.  As soon as I was of age to start working, I started a part time job. Most of those wages went to save for college.  When I was given gifts of money, at least half of that went into my college savings.  In college and graduate school, I went to school full time and worked three to four part time jobs.  I lived on $20 a week in college.  When I was done college and graduate school, even though my life didn't go as planned- I was paying my parents rent for my bedroom.  And not cheap rent either. I paid $400 a month to them. Ultimately, I decided to get my own place and work several jobs to pay rent, utilities, student loans and my other bills.  A lot of my generation though was just handed money whenever they asked for it. I believe a big part of it is how a parent raises there kids. I'm in my thirties and I believe the younger generations have only gotten worse with how they are raised.
Feb 4, 2013 2:23PM

We had this situation a couple years ago. My father in law moved in with us because he didn't have enough money to live on his own. He spent all he had on his children and grandchildren, breaking his finances in the process. So when he moved in, He contributed to our household with groceries, taking kids to school and back and doing chores around the house. He even paid for the kids cell phones he wanted them to have so he could contact them if they were staying after school. Sadly, he is now passed away.  our bills have gone back up but we have learned how to live on less.


We started contributing more to retirement, paying off debt, more into savings, and into kids college funds. We lowered our debt this past year over $50,000! We hope to cut even more this year.




Feb 5, 2013 10:19AM

We have a 20 year old daughter that decided to remain in the community we recently moved away from due to job loss....we pay for her college tuition which is reasonable because she attends a community college.  She shares an apartment with another person and pays half the rent (300) and her personal expenses.  She drives an older car that we help to maintain and we pay the insurance as well.  Our 18 year old will be gong to college in the fall and we have stated we will pay for 4 years of school as she wants to major in environment/zoology.  As she will be on campus we are not buying a car for her. 

My parents and inlaw are both in their mid 70's and in pretty good health. There homes are paid for and we hve checked to see that they have long term insurance and assisted care insurance.  My mother had open  heart surgery 7 years ago and we have made certain that they have evrything in order.  They have a good network of friends through their church my inlaws live in a 55 plus only community and have good insurance policies as well.


What is important to us is that our children know we will help them to a point but will not tape into our retirement monies for things such as school, trips etc...if they want extras they need to work like my spouse and I have, even when we were in college.  My older daughter budgets well works about 32-25 hours a week as a manager and attends school full time.  She has learned w to budget and manage her money.  We do treat them for birthdays, etc....but have made it clear not to expect us to pay for the "wants" in life.  I do not believe you are doing your children any favors by paying there way thru life.  Both my daughters have learned the value of money and do not have grandiose expectations for things to be paid for by us.

Feb 4, 2013 1:31PM
To help someone out temporarily is fine.   A look term obligation no.    However, when your parents reach a certain age they may require that you provide for them or even for a place for them to live.   If you are strugglinng it can be very hard to do that.  However, if you are well fixed, it should not be a problem.   Because of them, you were born and made it to adulthood.    We are here because of the sacrafices made by our parents and grandparents.  
Feb 4, 2013 3:18PM
that's why the kids today are called the Slacker generation.  it's the result of decades of hand outs. 
May 15, 2013 11:17PM
WAY TOO MANY kids of this current generation feel VERY ENTITLED to have their parents support them well into their early to mid 20's. At the age of 25, close to 1/3 of a persons life is DONE, some live longer, some live less. If your kid is in their early to mid 20's, living at home, unemployed/under employed, barely making his/her car payments, has no savings, may be in debt with student loans (or the parents paid for junior's college and the parents have no SIGNIFICANT savings for THEMSELVES when they get older) and are still on the parent(s) health care insurance, then the KID is VERY BEHIND the power curve of LIFE. Now-a-days, it is taking this current generation well into their late 20's to actually find gainful employment, stand on their own 2 feet, and make SOMETHING out of their lives. They expect Mom-n-Dad to back stop them until "they feel comfortable" about going out on their own and attempting to tackle life. Ohhhhh HELL NO!!!!. Find some type of employment; if you can't find a decent full time job, get several part time jobs. The job's are out their; some jobs just entail HARD WORK, SELF-SACRIFICE, FOCUS, DISCIPLINE, etc that seems to be lacking in the younger generation. To this younger generation, if you can't fix something by a computer, then it can't be fixed; they want to CONSTANTLY interact with their social groups (Facebook etc) twitter EVERYONE about ANYTHING, and are NOT WILLING to put employment BEFORE their social groups; will continue to blame the economy for THEIR SHORTFALLS in life; feel very entitled to be supported by their parental units; and typically would NOT ACCEPT a job or be willing to perform a job that does require HARD, PHYSICAL labor, LONG HOURS, or to place themselves in situations that they feel "uncomfortable" with. If you kid needs to be pushed outside the home; forced to confront difficult LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES, pay THEIR OWN WAY or at least part way after turning 18 years old (unless going to school AND working a part time job), then all the parents of these kids are doing is ENABLING this KID to DO NOTHING, or very little, until MUCH LATER ON IN THEIR LIVES. At the age of 40, the average persons life is OVER half way DONE!!!! I realize not every person of these recent generation is lazy, poorly performs at jobs, play's video games for hours on end, spends half the day on facebook or twitter, and may actually be out in the work force AT LEAST trying to get established. I do applaud all those young people who are out there in soceity working hard, living WITHIN THEIR MEANS, and who are not relying on or feel ENTITLED to having their parent(s) support them until they feel that "the right job" has finally come their way.     
Feb 4, 2013 1:46PM
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.