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The Boomerang Kids Learn a New Word — Budget

In Money, parenting on July 11, 2009 at 3:45 pm
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budget n. An itemized summary of estimated or intended expenditures for a given period along with proposals for financing them.

In today’s New York Times, personal finance writer Ron Leiber tackles the challenge of managing life with adult children who return to their parents’ home to live. In the piece, one college student is interviewed and photographed at his parents’ home in a wealthy town in a wealthy county. He tells the Times he has no idea what a budget is. The accompanying photo shows his  Dad. And Dad looks mad.

Who taught this kid how to not budget? Has he not been responsible for taking care of his own finances for a while? Apparently not. I was out of my Dad’s house — which had been sold, so there wasn’t much choice in the matter — at 19. I’ve never been back and it’s never been an option. He re-married, lived in a smaller apartment and had a second family whose needs took precedence. My mom, similarly, never suggested this was a back-up plan for me either. They both expected me to figure it out. And so, living alone in a studio apartment and going to university full-time and freelancing for national publications to finance this life, I did. During that time, I really wanted to take a ballet class. The shoes, tights and leotard were $30. It took me three months to save that $30. I missed a few ballet classes and I hated that. I learned what it feels like to be thisclose to what I want and have to work and save and work and save and not buy other stuff to leap the gap to get there.

What’s implicit in a story about how to manage life with an adult child, or maybe several, who’ve come back to the parental home is that there is a home to return to. That’s simply not the case for many young adults, and I wonder how much better, by necessity of surviving, their coping skills are or must become in a hurry. If you know exactly what it costs you to live, you’re fully aware what it costs, and when those payments are due. If they come in late, or not at all, your FICO score sinks like a stone and, when you really need access to credit or a car loan or a mortgage, those tools may lie beyond your reach. So you work backwards from that scenario and figure it out.

“But if everyone gets along, these children eventually move out with a big pile of money in the bank. And that safety net makes it more likely they will never again have to move back in with you,” writes Leiber. These adult children are a fortunate and privileged crowd. I know people who have done in this, in their 30s or beyond, lived free for a year, saved for grad school, acquired a degree and re-shaped a sagging career. For many others, that’s not an option; adding more high-priced student debt is, or hustling hard for fellowships and scholarships and whatever it takes to make that choice affordable.

Financial self-reliance is a learned skill. You pick it up from your friends, your family, the media, self-help books, classes, wherever you can get it. But, like any skill, it takes practice, and lots of practice, to get good at it. You make mistakes and, quite literally, pay for them. And the real measure of that skill, seems to me, is independence. That means not moving back into your parents’ house.

So where do you live and what do you do when you’re broke and struggling?  Same as it ever was: you take any job you can find, or probably two or three jobs. You probably share living space in a lousy neighborhood with several people. You probably don’t own a car or designer clothes, nor do you expect to for a while, if ever. You might not have cable. You do this because you have to — for weeks or months, maybe years. If you really hate living like that, you figure out a way to not live like that. Mom and Dad don’t ride to your rescue. Unless you are hampered by severe illness or disability, a little struggle actually won’t kill you.

When did we decide that it would?

  1. I share your wonder about how anyone learns to NOT budget – though there seems a lot of not-budgeting going on around the country. If more of us saved 3 months for ballet shoes (or whatever: for me these days it’s an Elderhostel trip) maybe showing up for the classes would come back in style.

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