Living with family when the money runs out

Michelle Singletary
Columnist May 31, 2013

The Great Recession has done many bad things to many people. But perhaps one part of the aftermath that’s been beneficial is the increase in multigenerational households. Their numbers expanded from 2007 to 2009 — the recession years — to a record 51.4 million people, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Starting right after World War II, the extended family household fell out of favor with the American public,” according to a Pew report. “Since bottoming out around 1980, however, the multigenerational family household has mounted a comeback. The reversal has taken place among all major demographic groups, and it, too, appears to be the result of a mix of social and economic forces.”

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

My sister, who has 20 years of experience in U.S. Navy financial management and contracting, was laid off because of federal budget cuts that are part of the sequester. Her job search in the Washington, D.C., metro area — where many have been laid off or are facing furloughs — isn’t going well. After having gone through her emergency savings, she’s afraid she’ll lose her home. In my effort to comfort her, I assured her she could always come live with me.

She looked at me, tears in her eyes, and I knew without any words passing that she saw herself as having failed.

But that isn’t so.

Through no fault of their own, many people have been going through lengthy periods of unemployment. In April, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) declined by 258,000, but the total was still 4.4 million people, according to the Labor Department.

Even good savers have had to move in with relatives when their money ran out. And yet, we tend to view such arrangements as admitting failure. And before their boxes are unpacked, we inevitably begin to wonder when the struggling relative will move out.

In the case of young adults just out of college, why do we sometimes think of the ones who move back home as losers? We say they’ve failed to launch. But with so many of them struggling with huge student debt burdens, have they really failed?

It makes economic sense to me to have these young people living at home and concentrating on building up savings and paying off their loans.

And what about elderly parents who eventually find that they can’t live on their own? They fret about losing their independence. They worry about becoming a burden to their adult children.

Maybe all this independence we’ve been pushing isn’t good for families. That’s what sister and brother Sharon Graham Niederhaus and John L. Graham argue in this month’s Color of Money Book Club selection, “All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living” (Taylor Trade Publishing, $16.95).

“The dramatic rise in life expectancy, the growing cost of elder care, the increasing need for child care, the frustrating lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and the new disconnectedness are all producing unfamiliar challenges for families all around America,” they write.

Niederhaus and Graham spend a fair amount of time making a compelling case for multigenerational living. Niederhaus says she interviewed more than 100 families living in multigenerational households. They back up their argument with research such as data from Pew, which has reported that moving in with relatives has lifted people out of poverty, providing a “financial lifeline for many.”

The authors offer practical tips on how to live together peacefully, such as building homes with multiple kitchens and entrances. They encourage regular family meetings.

They also aren’t blind to family dynamics that can make such living arrangements difficult or not feasible. As the old joke goes, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

Still, I believe, as the authors do, that the avalanche of social and economic issues we are dealing with will force people to embrace multigenerational living as a positive way to adapt to tough financial times.

America was founded on the principle of independence, and it’s one of the most cherished notions of the nation, the authors say. But they write, “There is no such thing as independence. There is only interdependence.”

I’ll be hosting a live online discussion about “All in the Family” at noon Eastern on July 3 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Niederhaus and Graham will both join me to answer your questions. Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, which is donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of this month’s selection, send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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