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My life looks great from the outside. I live in a city I love and work in my dream job. But this was all made possible with financial support from my parents, which is now poisoning my relationship with them and the rest of my life. My parents are very well off and I appreciate what they’ve given me, but their gifts always come with strings attached. They paid for my expensive liberal-arts college degree on the condition that I major in what they wanted. They’ve paid for all of my visits home on the condition that I spend all my waking moments with them. They paid for a new car after I got in a bad accident, and bring it up whenever they think I’m being ungrateful.
When I was younger and poorer, their support was helpful, but now it’s becoming a burden. I recently moved to a new city, and it would have been much cheaper for me to donate my old furniture and buy new things for the smaller apartment I have now. But my parents bought my old furniture and insisted that it be shipped across the country. When I had to get rid of some of it, they threw a fit about me not appreciating their gifts. They now want to be repaid for some of the furniture.
I know I need to cut myself off and stop accepting these gifts, but it’s so hard, and my parents say they don’t like seeing me “suffer financially.” Most of my friends say I should just suck it up to keep getting free stuff, but I feel beaten down emotionally by this. Any advice?
-Spoiled brat who doesn’t want to be spoiled anymore
Dear Spoiled Brat,
You don’t know it yet, but you’ll feel infinitely richer once you’re riding on your own financial steam. The whole point of having money is that it widens your options, and it seems like your parents’ gifts are starting to constrict yours. It’s time to cut the strings.
It’s easy to get hooked on free stuff. This isn’t quite the same scenario, but it’s related: I used to work at magazines where brands would send a constant stream of gifts — beauty products, new clothes, bottles of wine, invitations to private sample sales — to editors like myself, partly to “inform” us about new products but also just to butter us up. When I left those perks for a new job, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit wistful, if not downright depressed about the future of my wardrobe. But then, I discovered that all those “free” things had actually cost me a lot of mental space. The unspoken pressure to maintain relationships with those generous brands had taken energy and “thank you” emails, and I could now focus that time on more fruitful relationships. Going back to paying for clothes and makeup like a normal person was a drag, but nowhere near as bad as I built it up to be.
My point is, you will probably find that you don’t need your parents’ money nearly as much as you think you do. Life without the emotional cloud of constantly “owing” them will be more comfortable than any couch they can buy you. However, breaking out of these patterns will be a cognitive leap as much as a financial one, and it’ll take time.
By keeping you in their honey trap, your parents are implying that you don’t have what it takes to make it on your own. This tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: A recent ten-year study showed that young adults are more likely to develop positive financial habits if their parents expect them to do so. “Even if your parents are terrible role models and never talk to you at all about finances, our data shows that if they express an expectation that you will do well with money, you will be far more likely to succeed,” says Patricia Seaman, a director at the National Endowment for Financial Education. “Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well.” When your parents say that they don’t like to see you “suffer financially,” the message is that you’re incapable of living up to their standards under your own steam. And this may be true, but as you pointed out in your letter, their standards are different from yours. Maybe you can’t afford to buy yourself a houseful of fancy furniture and then fly it all across the country, but remember: You didn’t want to anyway.
Instead, it’s time to take stock of what you can afford, and lay the groundwork for quitting the parental payroll. You don’t want to declare your autonomy and then come crawling back a few months later. So start small: Do you have savings? What does your emergency fund look like? Do you have a budgeting system? Ideally, you want to have at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses socked away, in cash, so that you don’t have to go knocking on your parents’ door if a disaster (like another car accident) strikes unexpectedly. This process will take a while, and it’s okay if you’re beginning from scratch; make incremental, achievable goals. Since you’re used to leaning on your parents for monetary issues, I’d also recommend finding a new authority figure to help you, like a fee-only financial advisor who can walk you through the basics of what’s realistic. Find and pay that person yourself (here’s a good place to look), without your parents’ assistance.
While you’re at it, set a date for when you want to be fully independent. By no means do you have to be in perfect shape, financially, by this deadline — your emergency fund may still be in its nascent stages, for instance. Your objective is not to get all your ducks in an impeccable row. Instead, you are taking this grace period to establish good habits, prove to yourself that you can keep them, and establish a standard of living that you can stick to. Then, when you sit your parents down and say that you are so grateful for your help and will be doing without it from now on, thank-you-very-much-and-I-love-you, you can explain what you’ve set up and demonstrate that you’re ready for this step.
And finally, use this time to do some prodding into the origins of your parents’ financial tendencies. Did their parents cover their expenses when they were in their 20s? If so, how did they feel about it? You could use the current furniture scuffle as a means to start this conversation. Why are they so angry about it? What would they have preferred that you do? What kind of furniture did they have when they were your age? Be curious, not combative. You will have the urge to defend yourself, but for now, just keep asking questions. Opening the door to this dialogue will teach all of you how to respect the nuances behind their choices — and yours — like the adults you are.
As for your gratitude: Your parents seem to crave it. So give it to them! Treat them like you would a generous aunt or uncle. Send them thank-you notes for small things. Ask for their advice, and be gracious when they give it — you don’t have to take it. They clearly like having an influence in your life, and you can make them feel heard and impactful without giving them actual clout.