It used to be, pre-pandemic, that when I went out to eat with our three older daughters — one of whom makes more money than I do — I would reach for my purse when the check came. If they offered to pay, I would resist. “Who am I to take money out of their wallets?” I would think. I might as well have said, “Who am I to take food out of my children’s mouths?”
Today, what’s different is that most restaurants are closed and our time together is limited. What’s not different? My penchant to want to pay. While I know better, I can’t help myself. When it comes to the kids, no matter their ages of 29, 32 and 34, my maternal caregiver and money saboteurs kick in and put up a good fight.
In 30-plus years of parenting and 60 years of life, my relationship to money has evolved. It started with learning these core values and behaviors from my parents and four sisters growing up in Wyoming:
Money is stressful.
Education is priceless.
We will be here to support you, no matter what.
It’s not all about money.
Greed is bad.
You can do whatever you put your mind to.
For the most part, these beliefs and behaviors remain a part of me. They are like stones tumbled in a stream over many years, formed and banded with their own unique shape and pattern depending on the current or currency. As I have turned these stones over in the process of raising five children, going through a divorce and remarriage, and serving as a life and money coach for 20 years, I’ve focused on mindsets I can change. With my own transformation, I have been able to help others handle the complexities and challenges of navigating financial transactions with loved ones.
Show me the way
The following is a simple framework of head, heart and habit I offer to my clients, as the alignment of all three is critical to finding and practicing guilt- free ways to stop financing our adult children. Whether you are paying for dinner and don’t need to, or deciding whether to offer a large chunk of your retirement savings as a down payment on a newly -married child’s house, use the following check-ins before taking action.
1. Check your thinking.
Our beliefs about money drive our actions. Think of a time when you’ve been faced with the question of whether to pay or say nay. Write down as many thoughts or beliefs about the situation that as you can muster. I should pay because I am the parent. We’ll make the money back. They couldn’t do this without our help. It would be cruel to not offer when we can afford to.
Questions to ask:
- Are these thoughts based on fact or fiction? We tend to tell ourselves stories rather than focus on the facts.
- What feelings or habits triggered these thoughts if any? If guilt is hovering nearby, we’ll look at that in the next step.
- Might a different thought(s) create more ease or a path toward resolution? Not helping with a mortgage will enhance my financial health. My child needs me to be financially healthy.
2. Check your emotions and feelings.
Our emotions and feelings are integral to how we think and act. Emotions are in our bodies and are instinctual biochemical reactions. Feelings are in our minds and are triggered by associations acquired by experience. When your adult child asks for support or you are inclined to reach out, do a body check. Hold your hand on your heart if you are able. Notice your breathing. Check in on your emotions.
Questions to ask:
- Am I feeling guilty? Guilt can be driven by our saboteurs that may have helped us succeed in life but can also be our greatest weakness. Guilt can also show up in levels of intensity from high (criminal) to low (responsible) and be conditioned by our moral code and culture. Go back to step one and see if there is a thought driving this feeling. I’m NOT being a responsible parent by…. Try a new thought to see what happens. I AM being a responsible parent by…
- Is joy or excitement showing up? These are lovely emotions but perhaps not ones to drive a serious transaction with long-term consequences. Let time pass before acting.
- Am I looking for love in the all the wrong places? Buying a gift can be a powerful act of love. However, creating dependencies that rob our children of experiencing their own feelings of empowerment can hurt more than help in the long run.
3. Check your habits.
Our habits are driven by our thoughts and can be so engrained we hardly notice them. For example, do you always pay for dinner? Do you regularly jump at the chance to buy something your child says he or she needs because you love being a “mommy-make-it-happen?” Consider how these habits might be more focused on your child’s needs versus your own, or might have an element of disservice to your child. They don’t say put your oxygen mask on first for no reason!
Actions to take:
- Capture a list of habits (actions) that you notice around supporting your adult child financially. Is this a pattern or an exception?
- Go back to steps 1 and 2 and reflect on the thoughts or emotions and feelings associated with these actions. Are they in line with your values, or serving another purpose like wanting to be loved?
- Identify one habit you want to change and support it with a thought and a feeling that serves you in a way to that removes any guilt and offers both parties a positive solution.
In the end, what we model for our children is passed along, for better or worse. No matter how old, we can always learn from the inevitable moments when love and finances mix. Just recently, when a take-out order included three grown children, I found myself holding back from jumping in to pay the bill. When I chimed in to ask about my share, the response was, “No worries, Mom. We got this.”