From a nudge to a shove out of the nest

I was recently on a panel in Lexington, Kentucky, that was asked to offer financial advice to a live audience. The first person up to the microphone described her problem: Her 24-year-old son was still at home, and she hadn’t been able to dislodge him.

“You need to motivate him,” said one panel member. “I’ve tried,” the woman replied. “Try harder,” I chimed in.

A few days later, I recounted this story to a friend, who proceeded to tell me about her own adult son. He had drawn up a detailed budget with the goal of saving to buy a house. So far, so good — except that he then told his parents how much he wanted them to send him every month to build his savings.

Most parents are willing to help their adult kids. The trick is to extend a helping hand without discouraging their motivation to move on. I suggest the following guidelines:

• Set limits. In the case of the mom in Lexington, she hadn’t established limits for her son’s stay at home. She needs to impose a deadline: He has six months (or even less) to find a job, any job, and get out of the house. As one recent college grad told me the other day, “You can’t recognize the good jobs until you’ve had the bad ones.” And while he’s at home, he should pitch in to do chores, run errands and prepare occasional meals.

• Be selective about offering financial help. In the second case, it’s OK for my friend to cover some of a child’s expenses (at least temporarily), but not to pay for all of them. You might, for example, cover your kid’s cellphone bill or health insurance until he’s on his own. But don’t cosign for a credit card — or let him use yours.

And don’t do anything that jeopardizes your financial security by dipping into your retirement savings. Make gifts infrequent and unexpected, and your kids will appreciate them instead of taking them for granted.

• Be generous with advice. Chances are, your kids will come to you to ask about their finances — everything from how to repay their student loans to how to save for retirement and set up an investment plan. Be flattered by their faith in you.

Janet Bodnar is editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to