Across North America this month, an important rite of passage is taking place: College and university students are leaving home, moving to new towns and cities, and setting up living quarters away from their parents. And the parents of these young adult children are facing an important developmental task of their own: Resisting the urge to make everything absolutely perfect for their offspring.
Or, as the case may be, NOT resisting that urge. In my work as a financial psychologist, I have witnessed affluent parents insist upon setting up exquisitely appointed first apartments without ever involving their child in any aspect of the process. I have also watched parents of much more modest means overextend themselves financially in order to ensure that their kids’ experience of want is virtually eliminated. In both cases, the parents have robbed their children of important decision-making opportunities and life lessons. When parents go overboard in such ways, it can leave young people with little to strive for and even less to be proud of.
Here’s what I have come to know: Young people benefit hugely from the experience of living with slightly scuzzy carpeting and second-hand pots and pans. They gain important life skills when they have to research consumer products, deal with landlords directly, and live within a pre-determined budget that they manage on their own. These lessons help them morph into solid citizens and capable life partners.
Peter Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett, one of the richest men on the planet. In his largely autobiographical book, Life is What You Make It, Peter Buffett writes about the benefits of experiencing manageable financial struggles in adolescence and early adulthood:
As I see it, living modestly – especially when we are young adults — …is not a penance but a salutary challenge. Being broke or close to it is a state of being entirely appropriate to a certain stage of life. It tests our ingenuity and our humor; it properly pulls our focus away from “stuff” and toward people and experience. It’s not a tragedy. (p. 116)
So here are some guidelines I offer to parents who are trying to discern just how much financial support it is wise to offer:
1. Think of this phase of family life as a continuation of your children’s financial apprenticeship with you. You’ve been guiding and teaching and monitoring them throughout their life, and now you have to equip them for a new level of fiscal independence. To that end, there are important conversations to be had in the weeks and months to come. What is it that they need to know about the wise use of credit cards? What are the costs they have planned on incurring throughout the coming academic year, and how will unexpected costs be dealt with? How can they have fruitful conversations with roommates about shared expenses? How should salary expectations figure into their choice of a career? What kinds of causes matter to them, and how do they want to bring their time, talents, and resources to bear on such things?
2. If you do plan on offering financial support, do not give your children the curse of a blank check. Instead, give them a modest amount of money for school and living expenses that will force them to exercise prudence. Make it clear that they will be responsible for dealing with additional expenses on their own. And when they do mess up, be a sounding board and thinking partner for them rather than a cash dispenser.
3. Share your own experiences of messing up, financially, and how you recovered, and what you learned as a result. Talk about your regrettable purchases and the opportunities missed. Telling such stories with humour and self-compassion is a great way of banishing shame and secrecy around money matters.
4. Pay close attention to any experience of resentment you might be having. One of the functions of this emotion is to alert you to the possibility that you are giving more of your funds, energy or time than is either necessary or wise. Resentment can be a cue that this emerging adult child of yours has entered a new stage of development, and that it is therefore time to shift how you offer support to them. This usually involves transferring more responsibility to the child for managing their own coursework, social life, and bank account. Not coincidentally, this will free up YOUR vital energy to focus on developmentally appropriate things for YOU — your intimate partnership, your career goals, your health, etc.
5. Finally, make a point of letting them know how proud you are of their growing independence. Voice confidence in their abilities to make decisions, to course-correct, and to survive some of the tough experiences they’re having.
You’ve got this! So do they! (Well, they will, eventually, as long as you don’t interfere with their learning by repeatedly bailing them out.) And if you’re feeling frustrated with any setbacks, feel free to adopt this coping strategy taught to me by my cat: Go into the bathroom, shred the toilet paper, and come out when you feel better. It works every time.
Dr. Moira Somers