Are Parents Risking Their Retirement by Financially Helping Their Adult Children?

October 5, 2018 by Jon C. Ogg

Source: jacoblund / iStock
Parents might think that once their kids move out of their house as adults that their adventure of expenses is coming to an end. A new study from Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Age Wave in the financial journey in modern parenting shows that an overwhelming majority of parents continue to help their adult children financially.

The financial planning study revealed that 79% of parents with adult children provide some form of financial support for their adult children. As far as what they are helping out with, it’s almost every category you can imagine. These ranged from small and large living expenses, weddings, phone bills, cars and education.

This research was the result of a survey of more than 2,500 respondents in June of 2018. It was conducted by Merrill Lynch, in partnership with Age Wave, and executed by Kantar TNS. In many families, the empty-nesting “is interrupted as children boomerang back home.” Their finding was that 31% of early adults aged 18 to 34 live with their parents, a rate that is 50% higher than in 1960.

While some form of help is lumped in with taking care of kids, in many ways, the tally for how much is being spent is massive. They projected that parents of adult children are spending a grand total of $500 billion on them. To put this in further perspective, that’s twice what parents are contributing to their own retirement accounts.

Before worrying that 20-somethings and 30-somethings are endlessly bleeding their parents dry, note that the survey does indicate these expenditures are concentrated in the early years of children’s adulthood. This includes when they are going to college or when they are first entering the workforce. And the financial contribution to children’s education is said to account for roughly one-fourth of the total. That said, some of the figures represented are shocking.

While much of this easy to explain, the majority of parents believe that it is their responsibility to provide financial help or to offer a home to a child in need. That said, most parents also feel that it’s a child’s responsibility to do the same for a parent. Still, there are millions of parents who are having to support adult children at the same time that they have to support or act as caregivers to their own aging parents.

Merrill Lynch’s report did break out much of this data in actual figures. Several key issues were seen:

  • Help pay for their child’s wedding: 60% of parents
  • Pay for some or all of their kid’s food and groceries: 60%
  • Pay for some or all of their adult child’s phone expenses: 54%
  • Pay for some or all of the kid’s car expenses: 47%
  • Paying for some or all of their kid’s school expenses: 44%
  • Paying for some or all of their kid’s vacations: 44%
  • Paying for some or all of their kid’s rents and/or mortgages: 36%
  • Helping to pay some or all of their kid’s student loans: 27%

Merrill Lynch also noted that one-quarter of parents are helping to fund a child’s first home purchase. Some 82% of parents are willing to make a major financial sacrifice for their adult child, with half willing to withdraw from savings and 43% willing to curtail their lifestyles to help. The real sacrifice comes from retirement: one-quarter of parents said that they are willing to take on debt and even pull money from retirement accounts. Another 19% of parents were even willing to put off retirement and work longer to help their adult children. There were even 8% who said they were willing to come out of retirement to help their adult children.

Breaking this out into dollars was shocking. On top of one-fourth of that $500 billion being used toward education, here were some other figures on what gets spent each year on a variety of other expenses: groceries/food at $54 billion and another $18 billion in cell phone services.

A lot of this report may sound worse than it actually is, but there are some alarming reminders that cannot be ignored. Some 72% of parents surveyed said that they have put their children’s interests ahead of their own need to save for retirement. And 63% of parents reported having sacrificed their financial security for the sake of their children.

It has never been a secret that it costs a lot of money to have a child and to pay for them through childhood. It’s just surprising to see how much is being spent each year. And in conclusion, think about this for a moment: The gross domestic product of the United States is now running at roughly $20 trillion on an annualized basis, and $500 billion of that is being fueled by parents helping out their adult children.