Cabin with family

Financial respect: Young folks at home

Young adults living at the parental home after college (or grad school) have become very common phenomena. For some reason, every media piece on the subject (or the social media comments afterwards) either has a derisive tone toward slacker kids and their pushover parents, or a resentful tone by the parents who feel they’re being exploited.

How to avoid that? Since an awful lot of the problem comes down to money and who pays, I’d like to suggest some guidelines on how this really could work to everyone’s advantage. After all, two (or three or more) can live more cheaply than 1 (+1+1).

I’m all for parents having respect for their offspring, and young adults having respect for themselves and parents. But all respect needs to be earned. So, if the young adult is going to live at the parents’ home, I think there should be some principles adhered to.

  1. Everybody has a job.

Part A: Everybody has a job or some source of income. For parents, this can be earnings or pension or whatever. For the young adult, this means some sort of job—even if you’re still searching for the career position, or are in grad school, you need some sort of pick-up job earning some cash. No exceptions unless you’ve accumulated savings from a previous job.

Part B: Everybody has household tasks equivalent to at least the minimum expected of a roommate. That means, for example, the young adult does their own laundry, cooks at least some meals, cleans a bathroom, vacuums/dusts some of the time, washes floors, mows the lawn, makes repairs, and keeps their own room clean enough not to draw bugs or vermin. This is reasonable for any roommate and core competencies for adults.  I will personally never understand how anyone not disabled needs a lawn service or housecleaner when teenage children (or older) are living in the house.

Part C: If the young person doesn’t earn enough money to pay their reasonable share (see below), they need to take on regular significant jobs that would need to be paid for—power washing the house, painting the house indoors or out, cleaning out the basement, you get the idea. This needs to be regular, scheduled, and not credited until completed. Get some estimates if you don’t know what it would be worth.

  1. No one comments on anyone’s sexual behavior unless it is visibly embarrassing to others. IMHO, parents have no business commenting or restricting the dating lives of anyone else in the house who’s an adult. An adult who wants to stay out all night should arrive home in time in the morning to let out the dog. If people would have safety concerns about a missing person, the people at home deserve a brief call notifying them that someone will not be home that night. Families should agree on the overnight guest policy. This may be the biggest source of friction between parents and adult children. Discretion is the watchword here.
  1. People are entitled to set drug and alcohol rules in a home, just as roommates would agree on the policies. If you make a vomitrocious mess, you clean it up.
  1. Anytime the young person feels they don’t like the rules, methods, or costs, they are free to move out with no resentment or subtle feelings of abandonment.
  1. No one does the saving for anyone else. I hear a lot of parents tell me they’re saving the (paltry) $300 or $500 for the kid’s wedding or first down payment. Um, no. The kid is costing you money and furthermore should be choosing, saving for, and accomplishing their own goals. It’s that pesky respect again. With the deal they’re getting, they ought to be able to save a lot more.
  1. Young adults pay their fair share. To parents: respect your children enough to believe they can pay their way. Millennials: don’t be a sinkhole to your parents. He or she who pays the bills, makes the rules. I constantly hear parents tell me they don’t charge their kids anything, or what they charge is minimal. They usually smirk after this, or tell me they’re waiting breathlessly until the kid moves out. Charge your kids what they cost; pay your way.

How to calculate what a young adult should pay:

Here’s the method I used. Look at 3 years’ worth of expenses and average them (okay, one year if you’re not an obsessive bookkeeper, but adjust each year). Figure out all costs in which the kid participates:

  • Housing including property taxes, homeowner’s fees, and insurance. Wear and tear is hard to quantify.
  • Utilities
  • Internet, cable, and landline service
  • Cell phone (I think this should be the whole bill, not just what an extra phone costs)
  • Shared car cost—payment, insurance, gas, maintenance
  • Food (including booze if freely available and grilling charcoal if used)
  • Veterinary bills for shared pets
  • Gardening
  • Average home repairs (1% per year of home value if you need a rule of thumb)
  • Health insurance if on a family plan
  • Whatever else you can think of

Paid for by the individual incurring the cost:

  • Health care deductibles and prescriptions
  • Health club and any other club dues
  • Lessons, musical instruments owned by the individual, and cost of hobbies
  • Entertainment and eating out
  • Gifts
  • Charitable donations
  • Clothing, grooming, makeup etc.
  • Individual car and all costs associated
  • Craft supplies
  • Debts (including student loans)
  • Savings (retirement, goals)
  • Vacations (their share if taken as a family)

So, add up everything in the first set and divide by the number of people in the household, then divide by 12. That’s the reasonable living cost the young person should be paying. In our case, I also have a home office where I take business deductions, so I arbitrarily allocated 1/3 of those deductible bills to my roommate. You have my permission to modify these—for example, it’s my car so she doesn’t cover the payment, but if she damages it, she’s 100% responsible for repairs. Sure, the fewer the people in the house, the more individual cost, but also the more space, access to laundry facilities, etc.

These are all reasonable costs associated with living a life. If you can’t pay for them, you can’t afford the choices you’re making. That’s basic budgeting—and by the way, if you as a parent don’t have sufficient savings for emergencies and retirement, you can’t afford to bankroll the kids. Same goes for grandchildren gifts, free child care, and huge lump sum transfers.

In our case, that came out to about $1,200/month and in trying not to be the meanest mom in the world, I knocked it down to $1,000 so she could pay extra on student loans, but half the vet bills. I’m not sure she’s coming out “ahead” on that.

When I tell other people what I charge, they’re invariably shocked. So much! But not really—there’s nowhere in Evanston or the Chicago area that you could have all these services, rent, and food for that price. Yet, since we both know that’s what it costs, she is indeed paying her way and can have respect for herself. I don’t feel resentful either. And I most definitely see her as a responsible adult. It’s win/win.

Financial choices in a weird job market

I keep hearing how the job market is at full employment, yet I’ve written before how insecure most younger workers seem to feel in their jobs. But yet again a few days ago someone commented to me, “Oh yeah, in (XXX industry) they’re just begging for people”. Well, “they” may be begging but I can tell them why they can’t fill the positions:

  1. The location is horrible: oil rig, frozen tundra, windowless cubicle, crazy hours, or crime infested neighborhood with a perilous journey to get there. So, basically, they’re not paying enough to make the risk worthwhile (as with any other investment).
  2. There’s a completely unrealistic set of requirements. Either the employer is requesting more education and/or experience than the job could conceivably require, or their requirements are so specific and demanding that two people in the world have those qualifications, and they’re not paying enough to attract them, or to encourage anyone else to invest in such specific training.
  3. Employers are thinking of the old days, when you could work your way through college. Millennials have heavy debt burdens—they’ve financed their careers long term. Requiring a masters’ degree in an urban area and offering $50,000 a year is so unrealistic as to be almost breathtaking. Couple that with the gig economy of “staffing companies” who offer no retirement benefits, no health insurance, and minimal vacation and sick days (and no paid holidays or overtime for working those or weekends—it’s all coming out of your “personal days) and, well, they’re not paying enough. Interestingly, staffing companies and recruiters often think they’re offering a higher hourly rate and I’m sorry to say that some people are dumb enough to fall for that. But if you calculate the value of benefits, cost of health insurance, value of paid time off, etc. you are almost certainly being screwed—because when did an employer ever have your best interests at heart?

 

Under capitalism, the market should be responding to these shortages by raising wages, right? Right. Instead, they’re offloading all responsibility for workers and directing ever more in the CEO’s pocket. We need someone creating an equally strong pressure (such as unions, government regulation, and new legislation controlling egregious corporate behavior). Will this plunge the value of companies and non-profits to operate? No, I don’t think so—just cost the 1% their ability to take everything. And great, offload responsibilities for workers–but then let’s put corporate taxes in place that fund government provision of those services.

 

It’s particularly troubling in areas that are critical to health, well-being, and education. These fields are supposedly “desperate” for trained people, yet many trained people can’t readily find jobs. I know of one situation where someone was being interviewed for a position at a fragile-medical rehab center. Although the candidate had absolutely no experience in the field, they offered a job after a 20-minute interview, if said candidate would accept an outrageously low salary, no extra compensation for weekends or holidays, high cost employee paid health insurance, no training, no mentorship, yadda-yadda.   They were obviously desperate for a warm body to fill the slot. But if you landed in the place after being in ICU, would you want to be treated by that new hire? And why was that job going begging? Because they’re not paying enough.

 

I’ve been amused lately by the practice of employers not disclosing the salary range for a position, and I’ve actually seen millennials comment that it would be “impolite” to ask that when being interviewed (either by phone or being asked to take time to interview in person).  Seriously? Why would you not ask—because you might offend an employer by being interested in working for money? As Samuel Johnson said, Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

 

And why would an employer be offended by an applicant asking about the salary range, especially so as not to waste anyone’s time? Because they know they’re not paying enough. And for them, your time is free.

So go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong (politely, please). I’m open to changing my perspective.

Baby in graduation cap

Financial planning for college: should you bother saving?

Nobody wants to pay for something, then watch someone less deserving who gets it for free. A dear friend recently raised this situation: are you a sucker for saving, while somebody else spends freely and their kid gets more money from a college?

I’ll give a very qualified yes to this—there are a few situations where it doesn’t pay (very much, at least) to save for college. Let’s say you make under $75,000 a year and have no investments beyond retirement accounts. Your family probably will qualify for some serious financial aid, and would get less if you saved into a 529 plan. But I really question how much a family would be able to save on that income, and if they can, they should be pouring it into their 401k and a Roth IRA. Can a family making $75,000 a year really manage to save more than $25,000 (the maximum into these accounts)? I seriously doubt it.

If your child doesn’t finish school or joins the military instead, you might have done better saving into your own accounts.

That’s it. That other family of merry spenders who got so much more than you? Did you see the award letter? Because lots of people lie. Especially people like to “reinvent” things in the best light possible—that “aid” might have actually been in the form of a subsidized loan, or the “free ride” might have been a waiver of tuition or some small amount of “scholarship” aid. If it was a state public school, and they are remotely middle class, it’s all going to be loans. If it’s a private school, it’s probably still some loans, or they have financial issues you don’t know about, or the school competes with publics by bringing the cost of attendance down to approximately what a state uni would have cost. Cost of attendance is the important number: what it actually costs to spend a year at the school, including tuition, dorm, food, books (can be a whopper), fees, etc. Add in transportation, moving the kid’s belongings back and forth or in storage, and the inevitable dorm refrigerator (not included in the school’s website estimates).

For nine years now, I’ve challenged anyone to tell me about somebody they know first-hand, who had family income over $100k, who’s child got all costs of attendance covered with no loans, for 4 years (athletic scholarships not included). I’ve yet to have someone come up with that family, but I’m still interested. It’s always 3rd hand, or a one-year fellowship (usually after the kid is already at the school), or tuition only.

It’s easier for a college to waive tuition than it is to cover the full cost. Why? Because tuition just requires paying professors and administrators, and those costs can be averaged onto other people. You can always stick a few more people into a given class. But coming up with an actual dorm bed, feeding the kid, and providing books actually costs money. Those “free rides” you hear about that go to low income families are usually free tuition, and then a loan package for living costs—and living costs are often the whopper.

But let’s say you have family earnings of $76K-150K, and maybe even another kid who will be in college at the same time. You might qualify for some aid. What if you were really careful and managed to amass $100,000 in a 529 college savings account? At worst, about $5,000 of that would be considered “available” each year for all your kids in college. (Same for parents’ non-retirement investments). Sadly, a reduction in aid of $5,000 is real money, but compared to the total cost of attendance, it’s a drop in the bucket. But having $25,000 available each year is going to make some serious difference to your child’s options and future indebtedness.

Remember, many colleges do not cover all demonstrated financial need. They’ll give you something, but sorry Charlie if you can’t scare up the rest—I’m not sure how they can assume you’ve been honest about your finances, then expect you to come up with more. Or maybe they just don’t care because there’s somebody right behind you on the waiting list.
Some schools have grandly announced that they’ll cover all need for families making under $XX a year. Note that that does not necessarily mean free—it only means they’ll cover the gap (as they calculate it) with aid rather than loans. For example, the University of Chicago says that if you make under $125K, they’ll cover tuition. But you have to make under $60K for them to cover the entire cost of attendance ($83,760 according to the school, compared to Northwestern’s $78,654).

But here’s the hitch—the kid has to get in, and any school that announces that will suddenly see an enormous jump in their applications, so your kid has even less chance of getting in than previously. I’d genuinely like to know how many kids attend who actually receive the full ride. Does anyone seriously believe that they will fill their class by allegedly need-blind selection, and then just randomly discover that they have to cough up more money from their endowments from all the kids they just admitted? I think I hear the sound of one hand clapping.

The exceptions to this are two: your kid is a world class athlete and gets an athletic scholarship that includes living expense, or your kid is a nationally desirable scholar (think published a novel, won the Davidson or Intel, has ground breaking published research or inventions) and is willing to go somewhere lesser than the ivy league. If your kid will outrank (grades + test scores + other achievements) 90% of that school’s current population, they might be willing to ante up something to entice them to come—but you should check that the guarantee is for more than one year.
Saving for the kid’s college means they won’t be burdened with very heavy debt incurred for living expenses, books, getting home for holidays, and every other surprising thing it actually costs to go to college.

BTW, if your child does get significant merit scholarship aid, you can withdraw the amount from the 529 penalty free. Or you can just leave it alone, because there’s always grad school…