‘Doubled-up’ households need clearly established rules

Michelle Singletary
Columnist September 21, 2011

People keep asking me whether our financial times are getting any better.

They are for some.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

But for many, things are still bad.

The Census Bureau just released household income data noting that last year, median household income was at $49,445, a 2.3 percent decline from 2009.

And the poverty rate increased. There were 46.2 million people living in poverty last year, up from 43.6 million in 2009 — the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published, the bureau said.

What also caught my attention in the Census Bureau report was the number of doubled-up households, which are defined as including at least one adult, 18 or older, who is not enrolled in school and is not a spouse or cohabiting partner.

In 2007, before the recession, doubled-up households totaled 19.7 million. By this year, the number increased to 21.8 million.

Many of the people doubling up are adult children returning home. In the spring, 5.9 million young adults ages 25 to 34 lived with their parents. That’s compared with 4.7 million before the recession. Just a little more than 45 percent of those young adults doubling up would have income below the poverty threshold for a single person younger than 65, according to the Census Bureau.

Doubling up isn’t easy. There’s the potential for a lot of fights over money. People are afraid they will appear greedy or inhospitable by asking for rent or for the adult moving in to chip in for utilities and food. So they don’t ask, and then they get steamed or financially overwhelmed when their expenses rise.

There’s often a failure to discuss with the adult child returning home how much you can help. Do you help pay your child’s car insurance? What about their student loans or other debts? Should you pay the loans to keep them out of default?

Things can get ugly between spouses when the adult child moves back home and begins to spend wildly, using their home like a hotel, coming and going without contributing. What if one spouse is ready to kick the adult child out, but the other (often the mother, in my experience) doesn’t want to force the issue?

You have to get the answers upfront on how you plan on handling these questions and situations. My husband and I decided long ago that we would, depending on the situation, open our home to relatives in need. But we set some ground rules.

That’s the key in these situations. Don’t double up without some understanding of what you will and won’t tolerate.

And for those moving in, there should be some ground rules, as well. Don’t do it without letting your host know your long-term intentions. If your financial situation is really bad, don’t lie and say you need to stay only three months if you suspect it might be longer. Be honest and realistic. If you’re recently divorced or have lost your job, it might take up to a year to get your financial life together.

If you’ve already opened your doors, and things aren’t going well, stop being a wimp and sit down and discuss what it will take for everyone to live happier.

Here’s the thing: If you are the person providing the shelter, you need to ask detailed financial questions. It might make you feel uneasy, but if you don’t delve deep enough, if you don’t get into their business, you will find yourself taking care of an adult long-term, and resenting it.

So get a full picture of the financial situation of the person moving in. Find out how much the person is making. Ask whether they have any savings. Get them to prepare a budget and look over it together.

If someone has a job but isn’t earning much — at least not enough to live on their own — come up with an amount he or she can afford to contribute to the household expenses.

If you’re doubling up with an adult so that person can pay down debts, you might agree that you won’t require rent as long as the overwhelming majority of the housemate’s income is being directed to the debt. Then set up regular meetings so that you can track the person’s progress. You’re not being intrusive by holding them accountable.

With doubling up, the goal should be to give a hand up, not a handout. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re taking care of grown folks who needed some help initially but are now taking advantage, dragging you down financially.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses might not be possible.

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