The Ugly Truth of “Failure to Launch”

There’s a scene in the 2006 movie, Failure to Launch, where a couple is lamenting the fact that their adult son still lives with them. “The boy’s thirty-five years old!” says one. “It’s just not fair,” says the other. “We were good parents and now we’re supposed to be done!”

If you’ve seen the movie, which I proudly admit I have not, you know it’s a satirical tale of a man in his mid-30’s who refuses to leave the comfy confines of his parents’ house. And why should he? He has no responsibilities, no bills, and nothing that threatens the easy life he’s settled into.

While this is a movie designed to make you laugh (or, judging by the reviews, cry), it’s an all-too-real truth for many parents. This reality was recently highlighted in a Barron’s article titled “How Your Kids Can Ruin Your Retirement—and How to Make Sure They Don’t.”

The entire article is worth your time as it contains stories from parents and grandparents who are supporting adult kids and grandkids, as well as some ideas from financial advisors on what you should do if you’re in a similar situation. Additionally, it contains some staggering statistics:

  • “About 15% of 25-to 35-year-olds were living at home in 2016, based on a Pew Research report
  • “Nearly 80% of parents give some financial support to their adult children—to the tune of $500 billion a year, according to estimates by consulting firm Age Wave. That’s twice what parents put into retirement accounts, according to a 2018 survey from Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Age Wave.” (Emphasis is mine.)
  • “Almost three-quarters of respondents acknowledged putting their children’s interests ahead of their own retirement needs.
  • “Nearly 70% of parents surveyed by T. Rowe Price said they would be willing to delay retirement to pay for college. 
  • “The cost of a four-year private college averages $48,500 a year, double what it did in the late 1980s.
  • “Education debt held by U.S. households went up more than sixfold from 2001 to 2016, with families headed by someone age 40 or older representing the biggest jump, according to a December report from the Federal Reserve.
  • “There are some three million grandparents taking care of younger children.”

This isn’t meant to disparage parents-or-grandparents-as-caretakers, especially if you are caring for someone with any kind of disability or addiction. Shoot, I have a hard time telling my four-year-old daughter, Gwen, that it’s not okay to have carrot cake for breakfast, so I can only imagine the difficulty when the stakes are that much greater. It is, however, meant to highlight the significant danger that the cost of caretaking imposes, especially if you are no longer working.

All the advisors at Beacon Wealthcare have worked with clients in situations like this. Typically, the greatest challenge is overcoming the emotional obstacles of cutting off a needy child, which is exactly where a real financial advisor can help. One of our chief jobs is to be an advocate for our clients. And the role of an advocate is varied and sometimes involves pushing back against a financially dependent child, whether or not he or she is even aware of the serious damage being done to his or her parents.

No matter if it’s through encouragement, running the numbers, or a joint meeting with parent and adult child where we serve as the “bad guys” (my kids will argue I’m a natural in this role), the starting point is a frank conversation about your concerns and what it means for your finances. Maybe you can afford to supply a moderate level of financial assistance. If that’s a priority, then by all means continue to do it. More often than not, however, we witness support for adult children and grandchildren coming at the cost of your own financial security.

If any of this hits home for you, please let us know. As always, we will treat your situation with the utmost care and confidentiality.

Ryan Smith
[email protected]

Born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I moved to Raleigh in 2011 to marry my wife, Emily. We have two kids, Jack and Gwen, a golden retriever named Olly, and are members of Church of the Apostles. I have been a Financial Advisor since 2005 and earned a Master’s of Science in Financial Planning from Bentley University in 2007. I became a CFP® professional in 2009, a Retirement Income Certified Professional® in 2015, and a Certified Tax Specialist™ in 2023.