Maureen Shackelford slips into old habits sometimes. The Annapolis mother of three grabs dirty laundry from one of her children’s rooms on her way downstairs, or picks up clothes in her son’s bedroom and puts them away. She has to stop and remind herself: Kyle is 23, Erin is 22 and Colin is 19. They are adults.
But they are living at home.
Finding the line between supporting and enabling your recent graduate is a typical experience in the life of a family with “boomerang” children who move back home after college.
With the economy lagging the past few years, 39 percent of adults ages 18 to 34 say they have had to move in with their parents in recent years, according to a 2011 studyby the Pew Research Center. A Pew analysis of Census Bureau data showed that more adults are living in multi-generational households than at any time since the 1950s.
“It’s really common for parents to help their kids in their 20s,” said Liz Weston, a personal finance columnist. “If what you’re doing is helping to launch your kid into living independently, it’s a good thing. But if what you’re doing is enabling your kid to remain a teenager, that’s not a good thing.”
The Shackelfords are taking in Kyle and Erin, both of whom graduated from college in May, while they save money and continue their education. Youngest son Colin is also home for the summer after his freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
“Having five grown adult independent-thinking people in the house is not easy,” Maureen said. “They all have their own ideas about everything now; they’re not just compliant miniature versions of you anymore.”
Here are suggestions from financial advisers and other experts on how to stay sane and make sure you are preparing your adult child for a relaunch instead of giving him or her an extended vacation from the responsibilities of the real world.
Set a time limit. Before your fledgling adult makes his way back to the nest, talk about expectations, including how long the arrangement will last and what your child hopes to accomplish while he is living at home, whether it’s saving enough for a security deposit on an apartment, finding a full-time job or recovering from a messy breakup.
That doesn’t mean that you have to kick him out the minute the agreed-upon time frame is up, says Amy Goyer, home and family expert for AARP. Set a trial period of three to six months, or a year, and then reevaluate to see whether the arrangement is working for everyone.
Psychologist Carl Pickhardt, author of “Boomerang Kids: A Revealing Look at Why So Many of Our Children Are Failing on Their Own, and How Parents Can Help,” said parents should involve their child in determining what that time frame should be.
“Ask him, ‘How long do you need?’ Then, at the end of six months or a year, sit down and see where you are in relation to the objectives you set,” Pickhardt said. “A time frame can keep him focused and be a reminder that this is a working stay, not a vacation.”
Charge rent. Financial advisers say you should charge rent, even if it’s minimal. If you don’t want to put that money toward paying bills, you can use it to help pay down student loans or save it to give to your child when he or she is ready to move out.
Having your child be responsible for rent and other expenses will prepare him to live on a budget when he moves out, said Kathy Roeser, a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley in Chicago. Use budgeting software such as Mint.com or spreadsheets to help him track income and expenses, added David Kassir, a registered investment adviser with Manna Capital Management in the District.
How much to charge depends on your child’s income, but Roeser suggests using the average cost of a rental in your area as a basis for setting monthly payments.
Kassir said parents should charge 30 percent of their child’s income, just as a rental property or mortgage company would calculate how much a person can afford to spend on housing.
If your child is not employed, you can substitute household chores for rent, Goyer said.
In some cases, parents might choose not to charge rent. That can help children save money and move out sooner.
Tom Miceli, who moved home to West Hartford, Conn., after graduating from nearbyWesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in English last year, said his parents did not charge him rent, so he has saved all of the money he has earned working several part-time jobs. He is preparing to move to an apartment in New York with some friends in a few weeks, he said.
Don’t let your child get too comfortable. Pickhardt says parents should create a sense of “constructive discomfort” for their kids, so they are motivated to move out. By setting clear expectations for behavior and contributions to the household, and requiring that your child share information about his whereabouts and activities, you’re sending the message that this isn’t a free ride.
“They’re not coming home to collapse and be taken care of until they’re ready to move on,” Pickhardt said. “They’re coming home with a purpose, and the parents are there to help them achieve that purpose.”
Discuss ahead of time everything from television and computer time to chores, entertaining guests and smoking and drinking, Goyer said. She recommended setting up a weekly or monthly time to meet informally and talk about how things are going, and what is or isn’t working. Goyer also suggested a written contract outlining time frame, boundaries and responsibilities.
The Shackelfords said they allow their kids a fair amount of freedom. If the kids are not going to come home on a given night, Maureen said, they need to text or call to let their parents know. She hasn’t run into any big problems, but she thinks that the threat of losing car privileges would be enough to straighten out any problems.
“They’re very reliant on us, right down to car they drive, which we own,” she said. “If you don’t have wheels, you can’t get to work. It cuts you off. That’s a nice recourse.”
Be supportive. Although you want to make the living conditions not completely comfortable, Pickhardt said, it’s important to let your child know you are there for him and you want to help him. Offer help and advice without being judgmental or critical.
“It’s important that parents are not blaming the child,” Pickhardt said. “It should be, ‘I’m happy to put my life experience at your disposal, you have the freedom to ask about anything without fear of recrimination.’ ”
Miceli, 23, said his parents have helped him regroup and get ready to move out, hopefully for the last time. In some ways, he said, the year at home has been bittersweet because they all realize that if everything goes according to plan, he won’t be coming back to stay.
“We’ve always had a pretty close relationship, but it moved more toward being able to have adult conversations,” Miceli said.
“There’d be days when, for whatever reason, I was really frustrated, but my mom was very positive and would say, ‘You can do whatever you want; you just have to believe in yourself.’ That’s so corny in a way, but it’s better than ‘Why are you still here?’ I never got that from them.”