You thought you were long done with the day-to-day catering to your child's needs. When Junior flew the coop, it was supposed to be, well, for good. But after a rough patch in the adult world, he's suddenly back on your couch, his size 12s on your coffee table, planning another night out instead of a way out of your house.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center last December, three in 10 parents of adult children (29 percent) report that the economy forced their grown child to move back in with them in the past few years. Adults age 25 to 34 are among the most likely to be living in multigenerational households.
"A generation ago, living with your parents wouldn't have been accepted if you were an adult," says Christina Newberry, author of The Hands-On Guide to Surviving Adult Children Living at Home, a companion to her website. "The stigma is not there anymore."
Experts say that such living arrangements, frowned upon or not, can be a positive experience, but can also cause conflict if there's no proper planning. After all, taking care of an adult son or daughter could mean extra expenses at a time when you have your sights set on retirement. Or maybe you were hoping to downsize — and now those plans have been put on hold. And that thing you can't put a price on — your peace of mind — could take a hit, too.
So, should you get that desperate phone call from one of your own, lay down rules to help keep harmony in your relationship and to prevent your nest egg from dwindling.
Every expert we interviewed agreed that it's important to have a lease or some kind of written contract that sets out your expectations. Both parent and child should sign it, date it and file it for easy access. "You don't want to make [the stay] comfortable for them," says Deborah Owens, coauthor of A Purse of Your Own: The Easy Guide to Financial Security. "The fact that you allow them to come back home is a privilege."
Here are eight rules to consider for that crucial document:
Rule No. 1. Your home is a "no freeloading zone." Make Junior pay a mutually agreed upon rent for room and board — this could be weekly, monthly or however you see fit. "Let them get into the habit of having a responsibility, which they will have when they become independent," Newberry says. "It's good for their self-esteem, too. It allows them to see that they are contributing."
Rule No. 2. Doing nothing is not an option. Hopefully, your child is earning some kind of outside income. But if you've got an unemployed college grad or a recently laid-off worker, delegate chores around the house, preferably the kind that will save you money. Painting the house, cleaning the gutters, cutting the lawn or helping you cross off a list of home renovations are all good options.
Rule No. 3. Don't expect a hot meal every night. Where you were cooking for maybe two, now you have an extra place setting at the table. If Junior wants to eat, he can contribute by (1) cooking on certain days of the week or (2) paying a portion of the grocery bill.
Rule No. 4. Respect the space. Your home is not a frat house. "Sure, friends can visit and even a boyfriend or girlfriend. But don't think for a moment that my home is about to become party central," says personal finance expert Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, an AARP personal finance columnist, who advises parents to put a limit on the number of guests who can visit at any one time.
Rule No. 5. Leave bad habits at the door. Your adult child returned home with a penchant for drinking or smoking? If you don't mind such habits in the house, so be it. But if you do, outline it in the contract. State clearly: "No smoking or drinking on the premises." This goes for keeping a dirty room, leaving towels on the bathroom floor — if you don't want it done, make it clear.
Rule No. 6. Set a deadline. "Don't assume your child will leave when the time is right," Newberry says. Instead, establish a timeline to help the boarder reach independence. An adult child can get stuck if there's no clear expiration date to what should be a short-term living situation.
Rule No. 7. Don't be an ATM machine. Your household expenses are already ticking upward. But on top of that, you're being asked for $20 here and there. Or perhaps your child needs your help getting a loan and asks you to cosign. Don't put yourself in a financial bind to help your children, Newberry says. Have a talk about financial discipline with your child and do only what you can afford.
Rule No. 8. Have an exit clause in place. Make it clear that if at any time your child doesn't agree with your rules, he'll have to leave. "Many parents who have adult children living with them are way too timid and constantly tiptoe around their kids," Khalfani-Cox says. "If anything, it should be the other way around."
In the end, parents should not be enablers, our experts declare. "You can't have kids imposing on your life," Owens says. "What you can do is become their coach, not their friend. Do what you can to facilitate their independence. That is what parenting is about."
Stacy Julien is a staff editor and writer at AARP.org.