A Father-Daughter Duo Answers Your Questions: Accepting Financial Assistance From Parents as an Adult

emily and richard

Dear Meghan and her Dad,

My parents grew up impoverished and enjoy spending money on their children in meaningful ways (college education, summer vacations, grad school…). Possibly as a result of not wanting for money, my brother and I gravitated towards “do gooder” professions that are not going to put us in the same income bracket as our parents. I have always felt conflicted about my financial relationship with my parents, although also very grateful, as I believe it has allowed me time to explore my interests in a profound way.

Yet as I near 30 and plan to move in with a partner who is similarly low-income to me, and we think about having a home, starting a family, etc, I become confused about where to draw the line of receiving help from my parents. Should we accept money for a home? A wedding ceremony? Our children’s college funds? The idea of continuing to accept money makes me feel as though I’m in a relationship with my parents, rather than building a life with my partner. It is hard to feel proud of my independent financial accomplishments (of which I do have some), and it is at times hard to feel like a real adult. On the other hand, I get panicky when I think through how unlikely I will be to fund many of these things on my own in the coming years … help?

Meghan’s dad says:

Those of you who are faithful readers (or perhaps faithless readers based on the response to our last attempt to dispense wisdom of a modest order) will recall a similar question from a few weeks ago and might be wondering why we have chosen to take this one on. There is, however, an important difference between the questions. The question from several weeks back related to concerns about the writer’s relationship with her father, and whether his checkbook was all that connected them. The current question has much broader application; indeed, it is question of importance for what would appear to be the age demographic of The Billfold readership (based on my completely unscientific assessment—20 to 40—and excluding those mostly well-aged relatives and friends of mine upon whom I foist these columns).

For much of the past century, a time marked by steady economic growth in much of the Western world (with a couple of noticeable hiccups), and certainly since the end of the World War II, there has been a widespread belief that children have a better than even chance to exceed, in financial terms, the achievements of their parents. Offspring of parents who didn’t complete high school found themselves clutching diplomas and entering a growth driven job market in the ’50s. Their children, with university degrees in hand, fell (often times, quite by chance) into well paying jobs in the ’70s and ’80s and in probably more than 50 percent of the cases, found their net worth exceeding, sometimes significantly, that of their successful parents. I’m a case in point, even having been born into a family of initially extremely modest means but having a brilliant father who parlayed his admirable skills into a extremely successful career that put him at the top of a bank (sadly, for him, at a time when bank presidents were paid relatively modestly by today’s standards). And now the children of those of my generation, having listened to these tales of financial success, and with undergraduate and graduate degrees bulging out of their pockets, are bouncing out into what we will call “real life,” and finding it shockingly hard to find real and satisfying jobs that pay well. The Western world is, if not in retreat, at least slowing down and its run as the economic engine of the world is losing steam as other parts of the globe rev up.

None of this is news, but it bears repeating—this world and its job market is a very different place than the one I entered 35 or so years ago. There are amazing opportunities out there but they are not as evenly distributed as they once were.

It is in this context that I offer my views on this writer’s issue and from my perspective, she should accept almost any financial assistance that might be offered. I believe that her parents, if they have the means to share, should share. I believe that this intergenerational passing of wealth is extremely important. The current young generation, while having many advantages over the previous generation in terms of health and science and mobility and communication, does not possess the simple damn luck to have been dropped into a hungry economic machine desperate for talent and growth. My generation was, and if we can, we should share.

That doesn’t obviate the need or the responsibility of the current younger generation to work their butts off to provide for themselves and their families and contribute to society as a whole. Life ain’t no gravy train. But those of us who have the ability to share should do so, and those in a position to benefit from the sharing should receive it with grace and thanks.

Meghan says:

Oh, Dad. I love you.


Previous columns.

FEELINGS. meghanandherdad@gmail.com.


25 Comments / Post A Comment

andnowlights (#2,902)

Oh I love this, because I’ve been asking myself the same question for… years, now. Since my husband and I got married. It started when they offered to help with a large ($4000) hospital bill from an emergency surgery. We didn’t accept their help then because we wanted to do it ourselves, which is still the case (mostly, I’m still on their family plan for my phone) but I did accept my dad’s offer this weekend to pay for horseback riding lessons. Anything larger than that and I don’t think I’d be able to say yes, as tempting as it may be. I guess maybe because they instilled very much a “you have to do it yourself” attitude? Even though both sets of parents can absolutely afford to help us, I don’t think we could say yes unless we absolutely, 100% needed it.

All that being said, I completely agree for the dad’s reasons for saying they should accept help and I think it’s absolutely okay to accept any help offered!

Lily Rowan (#70)

I’ve taken loans from my parents and paid them back. If they had down-payment money to offer me, I would probably assume I’d be paying that back as well. I’d let them give me money for a wedding, probably, but only because I know it wouldn’t turn into a clusterfuck.

highjump (#39)

This is somewhat tangential but this kind of bugs me “I believe that her parents, if they have the means to share, should share. I believe that this intergenerational passing of wealth is extremely important.”

Um, yeah? The intergenerational passing of wealth is how the wealthy stay wealthy and what makes class mobility largely mythical. If you have financial stability in your family you’re overwhelmingly likely to remain economically stable. I’m not trying to rag on the letter writer (if they were a friend I would probably tell them to take the money but be careful of the emotions tied to it) but to me it seems like this choice boils down to “Do I live an upper middle class life or let my parents subsidize an UPPER middle class life?” Maybe I’m mean but my eyes can’t help but roll.

madrassoup (#929)

@highjump I agree. And I’ll take it a step further and say how disappointing it was to see Meghan’s dad start out with such a thoughtful, macro-level analysis of our current economic climate, only to end on such a narrow and insular note (“So spread the wealth…to your kids”).

There is a lot wrong with this way of thinking, some of which @highjump has already pointed out. But to me the main issue is that it takes an interesting idea – “if we can, we should share” – and totally blunts its potential by only making it about parent-child relationships. What about rethinking how we give to charity? Or, real talk, forcing that lucky generation to stop looking for tax loopholes and actually pay their fare share for once? Really, the least interesting/important scenario of all the ones I can think of is parents giving their kids money to go on vacation.

Also, you can’t talk about “my generation” (which I assume means people in their 50s and up) without acknowledging the ways in which opportunities were circumscribed by race and gender. It’s only telling part of the story when we say that Baby Boomers/Generation X had it so great, because there were plenty of systemic factors that contributed to keeping certain sectors of those populations from reaping the rewards of our economic bounty.

highjump (#39)

@madrassoup Word to all of this, especially your last point. What if the relevant parent member of the generation “dropped into a hungry economic machine desperate for talent and growth” is a woman of color who that economic machine wasn’t quite desperate enough to take? No intergenerational wealth for you!

ellabella (#1,480)

@madrassoup One possibility (which I know is how a lot of wealthy liberals see it) is that by providing high quality progressive educations for their children and perhaps some extra financial support, these families are hoping to raise “do-gooder” children like this author who are interested in making systemic changes. Maybe this isn’t as cost-effective as donating tons of money to nonprofits, progressive politics, etc. but it certainly has the potential to kill two birds with one stone (happy provided-for child doing work that also serves the greater good).

dudeascending (#1,921)

@highjump @madrassoup Seriously? Someone writes in with a thoughtful question about accepting financial help/gifts from family, and you’re rolling your eyes and faulting Meghan’s dad for answering the question his way?

Just curious, what’s the correct answer, in your view? “No, don’t accept your parents’ generosity. Tell them that any money they have above what Internet commenters deem sufficient should go to charity–but, you know, REAL charities, not the ones those commenters think are frivolous. Also, invent a time machine–on your own dime, no parental handouts!–and go back and turn down their helping you with your education. Remember, bootstrapping is the only way to legitimize yourself; anything else is a problematic manifestation of privilege. (But if you did bootstrap and succeed, you probably had some privilege we don’t know about anyway.)”

highjump (#39)

@dudeascending When Meghan’s dad justified his answer with historical economic patterns I think he opened himself up to the criticism that that rising tide didn’t exactly lift all boats. I say clearly in my comment that I don’t blame the letter writer.

Don’t get your powdered wig mussed. I’m not exactly storming the Bastille. If you can’t handle an eyeroll from someone on the internet in a lower tax bracket I think you’re the one with the issue.

dudeascending (#1,921)

@highjump Someone who isn’t annoyed at the gall of parents giving money to their kids = the aristocracy. Mmhmm. That checks out.

It’s becoming fashionable in many circles to believe that any financial resources above subsistence must have been accrued at the direct cost of others–e.g., people with the ability to pay for a portion of their children’s educations are somehow robbing every lower income strata. How reductive and tiresome.

RiffRandell (#4,774)

This is one where the answer can only ever be personal. If it makes your parents happy to give you money, and you feel comfortable taking it, why not? There will be different emotions in every family, and probably for every opportunity (paying for a vacation vs. paying your future grandkid’s college tuition).

PicNic (#3,760)

this made me tear up. The struggle is real folks. Also – Meghan, your dad is the best. Meghan’s Dad, you are the best! I wish we could all huddle under the wing of the generous and thoughtful person you are. You very much remind me of Uncle Alec in the Louisa May Alcott novel “8 Cousins.” (I re-read recently, minus the incesty parts about marrying your cousin in the sequel, it’s charming)

highjump (#39)

@PicNic Obviously these kinds of interactions are indeed emotionally fraught but I really wouldn’t describe questioning whether to take money from your parents, who you already have a good relationship with, when you’re already economically stable as a “struggle”

PicNic (#3,760)

@highjump I wasn’t writing clearly, sorry! I was thinking more on the part of the shitty economy and having a degree not getting you “what it used to” in the better times Meghan’s dad was talking about. The struggle being to provide adequately for yourself as an educated adult and sometimes needing/taking/pondering hand outs and whether or not to take them. (I think it also scratched at my personal situation of having no one with an outstretched hand while I am occasionally struggling financially, which is a touchy and often emotionally volatile button in my brain/heart). Kudos to Meghan and the letter writer both having really supportive parents (both financially and emotionally, it seems!)

ellabella (#1,480)

@PicNic This made me tear up too, and just because somebody is obviously in a more privileged position doesn’t mean they can’t have struggles. There isn’t some struggle cutoff wherein people with a certain amount of privilege are never allowed to have any challenges or feelings of conflict. While obviously not a terrible problem to have, figuring out how to become independent and when to accept help from others, including your parents, is a struggle that all people go through in different ways, including people whose parents have both plenty of money and healthy relationships.

dilworth (#6,313)

@ellabella WOW, I could not have said it better myself. I come from a family with lots of money on both sides. All inherited wealth created a few generations ago, so say what you will about that.

Trying to figure the whole thing out for myself continues to be a struggle, and one that I add at the end of the list of struggles most people have. DO I deserve this? Should I make myself do without as some kind of existential exercise? I really thing the money my grandparents left me, and the money my parents continue to give me on an annual basis as the best / worst thing in my life. I’m 41 and it’s only the last few years that I’ve been able to relax about the whole thing and let it happen, which is really the only thing you can do. Go ahead – flame me…

When I met my wife (from a very blue-collar background) I was so mortified I just didn’t bring up the subject for like, 5 years. Not the best approach. One day a few months after we got married we each received envelopes in the mail from my Grandmother’s bank. Each had a check for like, $12,000, her annual gift (or rather the bank’s annual gift). I had a lot of explaining to do….

BUT: all in all, if your family can offer you financial help, you should let them. Don’t feel guilty about it, and if they make you fell any way about it other than good, think again next time.

highjump (#39)

@dilworth It sounds like your Grandma was just glad to have another person to disperse a tax free gift to! Glad you’re all managing to evade those pesky taxes. http://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/Frequently-Asked-Questions-on-Gift-Taxes

ellabella (#1,480)

@highjump Wow, I don’t think either of your responses were very considerate or appropriate to the tone on the Billfold, especially when @dilworth opened up about his personal qualms surrounding the issue. It seems like he (I think) and I are interested in having thoughtful discussions and not necessarily on board with the systemic conditions that make family support so helpful (when you can get it) and problematic (when you can’t). Giving tax free gifts isn’t evading taxes, which is illegal. Giving tax-free gifts is legal, as your citation shows. Maybe a better conversation would be about the pros and cons of our legal system’s treatment of inheritances, not what this guy’s grandmother chooses to do with her money.

highjump (#39)

@ellabella Ah the classic tone argument, used to keep certain classes out of money conversations. Thanks for the helpful suggestion of more appropriate topics, but you’re really under no obligation to respond to me and I’m really under no obligation to oblige you.

I personally think that giving yearly (and apparently in this case automatic) gifts just under the tax threshold instead of dispersing an inheritance all at once, where it may be subject to some taxes, is an ethically grey area. Not evil or anything, just ethically grey. And I think it adds another layer to our original letter – maybe by taking (what some people would consider) small gifts along the way the letter writer will be reducing the eventual estate tax burden for her parents.

dilworth (#6,313)

@highjump It’s not ethically grey for me– the choices for my parents and grandparents are basically put some money into my hands where I can spend it wisely (go to college, buy a house etc) or send it down the tubes by letting the government tax their estate at 55% which is where it will mostly go in the end anyway. For me it’s a no-brainer.

highjump (#39)

@dilworth Yup your personal enrichment should definitely be our highest financial priority. “Down the tubes” indeed http://www.whitehouse.gov/2013-taxreceipt

Laurabean (#3,040)

@highjump Thank you. Social services are not the tubes. It’s a no brainer for you given your current circumstances, but as highjump points out, society might be improved if it weren’t an option.

AM (#6,604)

I was mortified the few times I had to borrow money from my parents as an adult, convinced I was an irresponsible failure. Then I realized that one of the reasons I would like money someday would be to help friends and family, which is exactly what they were doing.

madrassoup (#929)

@dudeascending You’re not really curious. And the types of responses you think the post deserves are everywhere around mine and highjump’s. I hope Meghan’s dad isn’t as fragile as you seem, and can take a critique as just that.

Aw I love this. I have tried to “fight” my parents offering me money from time to time, most recently related to baby expenses, and it has come down to “we can do this, we want to do this, please let us do it” and then I take the free money and remind myself how lucky I was to be born in the social status that I was and I don’t let my pride take too much of a hit when I cash the check.

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