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Financially Assisting Our Adult Children

Financially Assisting Our Adult ChildrenA lot of us have sound criteria for helping our kids out financially. We know when tough love should be levied and when a helping hand is appropriate. But those decisions can get muddied, especially for those of us who are grandparents.

The surveys suggest we’re generous with our Grands, that way more than half of grandparents – around 60 percent, according to most surveys I’ve seen – say they provide some assistance to their children and grandchildren. Clothing, general support and education top the bill, in that order. In my own informal, anecdotal collection of what friends and friends of friends are doing, the top item is day care. A lot of us open our wallets to pay for or help out with child care on the theory that we want our children to choose the best, safest care for our Grands regardless of cost.

But how long can or should that go on and should there be strings attached to our largesse? Friends are struggling with that issue and its complications.

Judy and Hal’s complications started when their daughter was in college. As a Spanish major she spent her junior year abroad in Chile, where she met and fell in love with a Chilean student. The romance prospered, as did her language skills. After she graduated from college, she moved to Chile and married her college sweetheart.

Two years ago they moved back to the U.S., to a small apartment in the same city as her parents. She started to teach Spanish in a high school while he continued with his studies in engineering. They were managing well on their own, living in an inexpensive apartment and watching their pennies. No need for parental help.

Then everything changed. They had a baby.

Judy and Hal offered support. They would pay for day care, but only for five months. They set a time limit for one reason. Their son-in-law had finished school and they wanted to put pressure on him to get a job. That, however, was proving more difficult than expected. His English is far from fluent. This was not an issue when solving engineering related problems, but created difficulties in his job search. “Most of the initial interviews are on the telephone and that is a problem for him,” Judy shared. He does not get call-backs.

He is increasingly discouraged and the five-month deadline is ticking to a close. For Judy and Hal the questions that raises are tricky. If they stop paying for daycare and the husband stays home to provide the care, what will that do his self-esteem, his attitude about his future in the U.S.? Will the young couple decide they would be better off in Chile and move there, taking Judy and Hal’s grandchild with them?

Both Judy and Hal work full-time and are in no position to provide hands-on child care themselves. Their son-in-law’s mother has come for visits from Chile for three week stints and helps out. But the mother has other children in Chile who depend on her for help.

Given that they can afford to pay for child care, the questions Judy and Hal are asking themselves now leave them wondering if they should step back from their five-month deadline. If so, how and for how long should they provide the helping hand of a child care stipend and under what circumstances? Should strings be attached? Should they demand that their son-in-law land a job, any job, even a low paying job outside of his desired field? And if he does and his after-tax earnings barely pay for child care? What then?

The stakes are high, and it’s not as though their daughter or son-in-law show any sense of entitlement or aren’t trying to make it on their own. They are. This makes these decisions more difficult as parents and grandparents.

These helping hand questions are never as clear-cut as we think they are no matter what criteria we’ve set. And when our grandchild’s future and proximity are thrown into the mix – who can say what the right decision is? Of course, the answer ultimately isn’t in our hands. It’s in our children’s. Our insertion of financial assistance is probably not the key factor in whatever decisions they make. It’s their life, whether we choose to give them a helping handout or not.

Penelope Lemov

As Penelope Lemov, I'm a senior correspondent and finance columnist for a national magazine. Everyone else knows me as Penny. In that richer and more personal life, I have two grown children, both of whom have started families of their own--in cities far from the familial manse and from each other. Among the smallest denizens of that world, I'm PenPen. And that suits me best.

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