Grayson Bell knows he is fortunate: His parents paid for all four years of his college tuition.
“They kind of pushed aside their own financial well-being to put me through college,” the 29-year-old in Raleigh, N.C., confesses. “In order to pay for me and my two siblings to go to school, they subsided their retirement savings for something like 12 years.”
As Bell points out, his parents will never get those years of investment back—but many parents make the same decisions his did. According to a July study from lender Sallie Mae, 85% of parents “strongly believe that college is a smart investment in their student’s future. And they’re putting their money where their values are: The same survey found that the typical parents pay 27% of each student’s total school costs from their income and savings.
It’s estimated that it costs $241,000 to raise a child in the United States from birth to age 17, and the costs don’t stop when they leave home—there’s still college to attend, car insurance to pay, weddings to finance and home down payments to scrounge up. With the unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds hovering at a discouraging 16% as of August, it’s understandable that parents may want to pitch in.
But when your child looks to you for help, should you put his financial needs ahead of your own?
Why Do We Want to Help So Badly?
It’s not unheard of for parents to find themselves in the position of sacrificing their own financial health to give more to their children. “If I do something detrimental to myself to help out my kids, whatever. I’ll make it up with extra freelance work,” says Linda Guthrie, a 59-year-old mom of two college students. “Our job is to help each other out.”
This desire to give your children as much as possible is something Dr. Fran Walfish, a child and family psychologist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child,” sees often. She explains that the parent-child dynamic has changed even in the past generation or two. “I think parents are inclined to put their children first because they’re so desperate today to have their kids like them; they cannot bear to have their children angry at them,” she says of the helicopter-parent generation. “Some parents are just generally selfless, but we are living in the generation of entitlement. Grown young adults have an expectation that they deserve and should be given to, and think they have the ability to convince their parents to give in.”
“Being a financial resource for your children is less critical than being an emotional resource.”
For her part, Guthrie understands that wanting to help her kids financially and being able to aren’t the same. With money for school secured through student loans, both of her children work and are expected to pay what they can for non-essential expenses such as a new smartphone or a summer abroad—so Guthrie now plans to turn her attention to her own needs. “Now that my kids are off in college,” she says, “I need to buy a new car and figure out how to contribute to retirement and build up an emergency fund. When my future is set, I will help them out.”