Should You Put Your Kids’ Financial Health Before Your Own?

Libby Kane

kid's financial healthGrayson 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.”

RELATED: Why Paying for My Daughter’s College Is My Ultimate Life Goal

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.”

  • concerned mom

    My problem now is being asked to help with HUGE dental bills because their teeth are rotting and infected.(two different children) They do not have the funds or good credit and I must go into debt to fund it. BUT it is affecting their health. How can I refuse? Help!

    • Faith Dugan

      How old are your children? It is crazy that their teeth are rotting (to that degree) at such a young age. They aren’t meth addicts, are they? Did they never take care of their teeth growing up? Were your kids coddled when growing up, never taking responsibility? I believe constantly bailing out children does them no good. It teaches them to never take responsibility for their own bills. Mama will bail them out! I understand you are concerned about their health, but obviously they weren’t concerned with it or they wouldn’t be in the situation with their teeth now. But if mom bails them out all the time, why would they need to be concerned with it? If your children are 18-25, I can see helping them out financially…maybe even partially (even making them pay partially makes them take some responsibility). However, I have a hard time believing their teeth are infected and rotting at such a young age (unless they are meth addicts which is another ball of wax). If they are older than 25, no way! My kids would never ask me for help with their teeth as adults, because they realize it is their responsibility, not mine. You need to start taking care of you, because if your children are this self centered and taking all your money, you will be left with nothing when you are retired….and your kids aren’t going to help you if they have that “self entitled” mentality. It’s time for tough love! If you don’t take care of yourself financially, what incentive is there for your kids to take care of themselves financially when you are their role model?

      • Rachmo

        Hi there. I’m 28 with rotting teeth as my saliva is highly acidic. It is genetic and my mother has the same problem. I don’t do drugs, don’t eat a lot of sugar, and stopped drinking coffee. Nevertheless I always have always had cavities since I was a young kid unless I brush my teeth everytime I eat or drink something other than water. This is not practical when you are an adult that works.

        Also, do her children have good healthcare? Bc I paid for all of mine out of pocket which has been killing me financially. Do you know where her children live? If they are in DC where I live they could be paying a huge amount in rent and therefore not be able to pay for the dentist. I wouldn’t judge the kids so harshly when you don’t know them. Many people in my generation are doing the best they can.

        • Faith Dugan

          Not judging at all Rachmo as we don’t have all the information. One clue is her kids have “bad credit” which (possibly) mean they are irresponsible paying their bills. I’m not against helping your children, but overindulgence does nothing to help them. I know what it’s like to struggle financially. When I was your age Rachmo, I was a single mom with two small children, homeless after leaving an abusive marriage, and had to figure out how to make it financially (and feed my children) since my ex husband refused to pay child support or help in any way. My ex husband came from an upper middle class family and his parents indulged him, so he felt everyone owed him. He would go through money, beg his parents for more money, and they would give it to him.

          This man did not stop me from thriving financially! He was my impetus for change. I didn’t have to depend on my ex husband, but I could thrive financially and did so. You can do it too Rachmo! If I can, anyone can!

  • Faith Dugan

    I believe in teaching kids financial responsibility and being a financial role model for your kids is pertinent for their well-being. Paying for everything for your kids teaches your kids that you are an unlimited “bank” they can draw funds for anything at any time they want. They need to start taking financial responsibility while they are young and have you for guidance. Their self esteem grows exponentially when they learn how to buy things on their own, knowing they can earn money, understand debt, maximize their net worth, control their destiny, let go of limiting beliefs, contribute to charity, and be financially free!

  • Con

    The first issue I have with this concept is in the 3rd or 4th paragraph:”weddings to finance and home down payments to scrounge up.” I’m sorry, but if your child can’t save for their own down payment or their own wedding, why would you, as their parent feel the need to do so?

    I’m only 26 years old, but I would never in a million years ask or allow my parents to make a down payment on MY HOUSE! If they want to chip in on my wedding I would gladly accept and be very appreciative but in no way do I expect that.

    My parents didn’t bail me out when I racked up credit card debt in college, they didn’t even pay for any of my college either. But did I whine and cry and not go to college and just live in their basement for the rest of my life because they didn’t pay for it? NO! I figured out how to make it happen on my own. I paid off that credit card debt, and I learned my lesson! I will never do that again.

    All these parents ‘helping’ out their kids by doing everything for them since birth are hurting their kids more than anything. They are raising lazy selfish, entitled people who would rather collect money from their parents, or the government, or any poor sap willing to hand it to them, than to go out and work for it. It’s sickening. Teach your children to be self sufficient, not to depend on mommy and daddy for every little thing! This is why my generation has a bad reputation for being whiny little brats. Their parents raised them to be that way! Mom’s and Dad’s, do yourselves and the rest of society a favor, and teach your children how to depend on themselves and how to work hard and sacrifice for the things they want! Rant over :)

  • kgal1298

    I feel like there should be another article should you put your parents financial health before your own. So here’s the thing my mom did help out a bit during college, but not much because she couldn’t I was helping her since 16. Sadly the issue never ceased she will still call and ask for money and considering I’m largely paying back student loans on my own and clearing my own debt it’s a hard thing to deal with. So sadly what was once talking to her everyday become maybe every couple of weeks because I know if I talk to her too much she will ask for money. Then of course her bad habit will be she will only contact me when she wants something like me co-signing an apartment, which is pretty much impossible with my financial needs right now and with the fact that I’m not sure she would make all her payments. It’s so stressful and it sucks because I look like this mean child, but I have to get myself out of debt so I kind of avoid my mom and she knows that’s why too…yet she still asks for help. Ugh.

  • Sofia

    My parents absolutely put their kids ahead of their financial wellbeing and it’s been a disaster.
    They paid around $1.5 million to send us kids to private nursery school, elementary school, high school and college. Or we thought they paid for it. Actually they took out a lot of private loans most of which they still haven’t paid back 30 years later. On top of that, they had a million dollar + mortgage(s) – one from the bank and a second from a family member) – plus credit card debt from vacations, shopping, eating out, gadgets etc. (keeping up appearances).
    They’re now divorced, at/past retirement age with nothing saved and still have these ongoing debts, a lot of which is for the education we received and, to a lesser extent, our lifestyle as kids and teenagers.
    It’s a pretty bad situation. Of course my parents made very bad financial decisions, and did so without our knowing involvement or “consent,” but we certainly benefitted. So do we pay off all of the education debt? How do we allocate it among the children, since more of it is in the youngest child’s name because they were borrowing more and more with time? Or do we focus on putting together a fund for when their medical expenses start rolling in? Or is it their problem? It’s going to come down to us sooner or later, in one way or another. How to plan?