Playing bridge

Even beyond college, some well-off parents continue to support their adult children financially. But when does 'helping out' in a tough economy cross the line into entitlement?

(Globe Staff / Dina Rudick)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / March 23, 2010

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Megan Brown graduated from MIT in 2008 with a degree in architecture, and works as a project engineer for a general contractor. At 23, she earns around $50,000. Her small apartment on Beacon Hill, with utilities, costs $2,500 a month, which she and her boyfriend split.

Still, Megan counts on her parents’ help. Her dad pays for her monthly parking spot and health club membership. Her mom pays for the car taxes and insurance and helps with an occasional credit card balance. Though her parents can afford it — and Megan is grateful — it’s not the ideal situation.

“I worry about entitlement, I really do,’’ says Fran Brown, who is divorced and lives in Concord. “I want to make sure my kids understand that you have to earn things.’’ She’s a parent caught between wanting to provide the lifestyle her daughter grew up with, and wanting her to be independent.

For Megan’s part, she is struggling to wean herself off the parental purse strings. “I always wanted to be independent,’’ she says, “but I had no idea what that meant. When I started paying bills, I had a big reality check.’’

But what kind of reality check is it when mom and dad are still picking up part of the tab? While many recent college graduates can’t find jobs at all and have parents who are themselves unemployed, other grads, gainfully employed, continue to rely on their parents to help cover their costs, which can include the creature comforts they grew up with.

Today, it’s not just first month, last month, and security deposit; some well-off parents are also helping their adult children with cars, credit cards, health insurance, cellphones, airline tickets, even entertainment.

Gary Buffone, a psychologist and author of “Choking on the Silver Spoon: Keeping Your Kids Healthy, Wealthy and Wise in a Land of Plenty,’’ takes a strict approach: Help the young’uns if they have a disability of some sort. For other parents who feel there’s a real need, he recommends a limited stipend with a definite time limit.

“For an able-bodied person, there’s absolutely no justification,’’ says Buffone. “The permanent downside is that these kids who remain financially dependent on their parents become professional adolescents.’’

Randy Russell, president of Empowering Young Adults, a company that focuses on launching young people into adulthood, agrees that parental help must be temporary. “You’ve got a lot of parents who are spending their retirement on their grown children,’’ says Russell. “They’re not going to have a retirement.’’

Buffone sees it as a folie a deux, with neither parent nor child fully wanting to let go: The purse strings become apron strings. “We tend to be so protective that we take away the kind of adversity that really taught us so much,’’ he says.

To be sure, the cost of living is high, especially in metropolitan areas, and most starting salaries are not. And because young people are remaining single longer, they don’t have a dual-income household. But even in a tough economy, it’s a fine line between helping adult children and enabling them.

Caroline Armstrong isn’t thrilled about sending her daughter $500 each month — her ex-husband kicks in another $500 — but for now, it’s her reality. Her daughter Millicent, 23, graduated from Rollins College last year with a degree in art history. She has three jobs in Manhattan — none is high-paying — and is still unable to pay all her bills. She works full time at a custom perfume company in SoHo and on the side as a nanny; she also knits scarves and wraps that she sells by word of mouth. Her sixth-floor walkup has no living room, the bathroom has no sink. She splits the $2,000 rent with a roommate.

“I’m not suffering giving up the $500,’’ says Armstrong, who owns Galatea Fine Jewelry in Milton. “The thing that concerns me is that she’s going to become dependent on it. I am a big believer in being slightly hungry to propel yourself forward in life.’’

Armstrong is adamant that the extra help is temporary: “We’re maintaining a lifestyle for her that will hopefully enable her to look for better jobs.’’

Roberta and Jeffrey Gordon are happy to help their only child, Andrew, who is 27 and on a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, where he teaches and does research. The Gordons are retired professors who take advantage of the US income tax code that allows parents to give up to $13,000 a year tax-free to a child. Each year, they give their son whatever sum they can afford.

“Why not give it to your kids instead of Uncle Sam, if you can afford it?’’ says Roberta Gordon. “If inflation is going to eat it up anyway, why not give it now to someone who can use it to pay the rent and buy a car? The old folks used to say, ‘Better from a warm hand than from a cold one.’ ’’

Her son’s small teaching stipend does not cover his rent in California. Does she worry that such unfettered funding will spoil her only child? Gordon laughs. “Not at all. I gave birth to a workaholic. He lives simply. He is appreciative. And I feel that he would help me if I were in a similar situation.’’

Still, she says parents must use their best judgment. “There’s no point in parents working themselves to death and seeing their kid spend it on the bartender.’’

Megan Brown has cut down on clothes shopping, and she and her boyfriend, a lab technician, decided against cable and Internet connection. Though they used to get takeout or dine out several times a week, they’ve nearly eliminated it. They bring their lunches to work.

She concedes that many in her generation aren’t used to budgeting. “Very few people I know who are my age understand how to manage money because our parents supported us the best they could,’’ she says. “Now we’re on our own, and we’re used to living really comfortably. It’s a bit of a shock.’’

Not for everyone, of course. Ben Sohl is 23 and a recent graduate of the University of Maryland. He grew up in Durham, N.H., where his parents both work at the University of New Hampshire; his mother as an academic counselor, his father as a business professor. Ben works in Tampa as a financial assistant and pays his own bills.

“We put him through college, but once he was out, he knew he was on his own,’’ says his mother, Chris. It’s something she and her husband feel strongly about, even though Ben is an only child and they could afford to help him out.

“My parents didn’t give me any money once I had a job,’’ says Sohl. “I was on my own. I think that giving money to your children in a situation like that cripples them from growing up.’’

Brown’s mother remains ambivalent about helping out her daughter. “Megan is a great kid and a hard worker but she can’t maintain the lifestyle we have given her on her own,’’ she says. That lifestyle is diametrically different from the one Fran Brown knew as a child. She grew up in Winthrop in a house where five people shared one bathroom. Her father was a mechanic, her mother a homemaker. Now, because her ex-husband did well in the venture capital field, Brown lives well.

“It makes me want to give my kids what I can because I can,’’ says Brown. “But I don’t want them to be that kid who thinks they’re going to get everything just because they always had it.’’

Fran Brown helps her daughter Megan with car taxes and insurance and an occasional credit card balance. (Globe Staff / Dina Rudick) Fran Brown helps her daughter Megan with car taxes and insurance and an occasional credit card balance.

IN A SURVEY OF MILLENNIALS ages 18 to 29 the Institute of Politics at Harvard University found that 60% were concerned about paying bills and nearly as many worry about affordable housing and health care. Of those between 18 and 24 , nearly half rated their financial situation “very or fairly bad.’’ Unlike previous generations, which expected to better their parents, only 46% of millennials said they would be better off than their parents when they reached that age.