June 10, 2014 at 10:28 AM ET
Getting adult children to achieve financial independence may require more of a shove than a nudge—even if those young adults have already scored a full-time job or have no student loan debt to speak of.
Half of recent graduates ages 23 to 26 rely on financial support from their families to meet their current needs, according to new data from the Arizona Pathways to Life Success study.
The study, conducted in conjunction with the National Endowment for Financial Education and the Citi Foundation, tracks life changes and financial attitudes in more than 1,000 young adults. (At the onset of the study five years ago, participants were all students at the University of Arizona.)
On the surface, it's not surprising that grads need a little help. In April, the unemployment rate for people ages 20 to 24 was 10.6 percent, and for those ages 25 to 34, 6.6 percent—higher than the overall unemployment rate of 5.8 percent for all adults age 20-plus. In addition, the average student loan debt for 2012 grads was $29,400, according to the Project on Student Debt.
The Arizona study found that even of those graduates who are employed full-time, 48.9 percent are still getting some help from their family or a spouse. Oh, and 59 percent of all the survey participants said they had zero student loan debt.
"Isn't that discouraging?" asked certified financial planner Lynn Ballou, a managing partner at Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors in Lafayette, California. "We spend all day long telling people that if you just help your kids get a job, they'll be financially independent."
So what gives?
Part of the problem is the jobs. "Our data clearly showed that many young adults today may not be earning enough to make it on their own, even when working full time," the study said. Benefits offered may be lackluster, too. In a webinar on the study, principal investigator Joyce Serido said much of the support is parents helping out with health insurance.
"This is a group that has really gotten whipsawed," said Ted Beck, president and chief executive of the endowment. "Many of them started off college in the fall before the market crashed." Their family finances were further affected graduating into a soft market. "They are getting their feet under them, but it's taking longer than they might have otherwise," he said.
There's also been some shift in grads' financial attitudes: 91 percent said financial independence is an important goal, down from 95 percent who thought so in 2011. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said they think they'll never be self-sufficient more than tripled, from 0.6 to 2 percent. Grads also said that annual salary was less important when job-hunting, compared to two years ago.
How long you should bankroll adult children's expenses is first a question of your own finances. Considering that many families have scaled back, halted or even raided retirement savings to pay for college, it's not a certainty that parents can afford to help, said certified financial planner Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network.
"As airline flight attendants tell us, put your own mask on first before helping others," she said. "That's what we need to be doing." (After all, helping the kids when you can't afford to only means you'll be leaning on them that much more for financial support down the line.)
Even if it turns out parents can afford to help, that might not be the best idea. "Are you helping, really?" asked Garrett. "It gets to the point of enabling." If your children are in a better financial position than most, with a decent job and reasonable loan payments, offering handouts can make it harder for them to learn how to live within their means.
To that end, the study found full-time workers have an average $4,900 in credit card and other debt, versus $2,500 for those who are part time and unemployed—a difference study authors attributed in part to "an inflated sense of their ability to manage debt, leading to less responsible consumption."
Once you've assessed your ability to help, it's a matter of figuring out terms for any continued aid. "Is it a loan or is it a gift?" said Beck. "Be very clear." Set a date with your child for your financial contributions to cease. Consider setting a longer timeline or scaling back aid slowly if your child faces tough financial challenges, said Ballou.
"We need to be sitting down with our adult children and recalculating the vision of how they get to a successful adult life," she said.
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