Launching Your Child into the Adult World:

Being Available but Not Involved

by Robin C. Bonner

Launching When?
Most of what you read about “launching a child” concerns the adjustments family members make when a child leaves home for college. However, I think the true launch takes place when the child graduates from college and sets out on his or her own. After all, most parents support their children financially as long as they are attending school. Although they don’t have as much influence on the child’s day-to-day decisions while the child is living away from him, they are mostly likely still paying the bills. Although the child may work to earn spending money or to contribute toward tuition, she is not yet writing rent or utility checks, shopping for food, cooking meals, or generally working to make ends meet. When the financial umbilical cord is cut, that’s the real launch!

Stable, Well-Paying Employment
As our older child approached her college graduation, she was busy fulfilling childhood dreams: finishing a degree in aeronautical engineering (as a child she had wanted to “build airplanes”) and applying to major companies in the industry. She always wished to work for Lockheed-Martin, one of the largest, and a job at their “Skunkworks” plant in Palmdale, California, was her goal. Located in the desert northeast of Los Angeles, the facility had, over the years, developed the stealth bomber and other cutting-edge aircraft. Lockheed flew Amie out to Palmdale for an interview, then made her a very nice salary offer—one that included a healthy (medical and other) benefits package—and she fulfilled her career goal and gained stable, lucrative employment in one fell swoop.

That summer, when Amie left on her cross-country venture with her boyfriend Todd (who secured a job in nearby Irvine with Boeing affiliate Frontier Systems), I felt a tug at my heart strings, but my purse strings remained intact. We had finished making college tuition payments in January. And, Amie, with her graduation gift money, would get an apartment in Palmdale and set up her adult life. We found it amusing when she called home after getting her first “real” paycheck. “Geez, all that money, and it all went to pay bills!” she complained. “Welcome to adulthood.” we laughed. We had been doing that (seeing paychecks disappear) for as long as we could remember.

I reminded Amie that she was one of the lucky ones. As a well-paid engineer, she could afford to have her own apartment, unlike many other graduates in lower-paying fields, who were forced to take on roommates or even move back in with their parents for a while to make ends meet. To achieve our own career goals, my husband and I (he in environmental protection, I in publishing) had done just that.

Amie devised a budget for herself and created a spreadsheet, where she tracked all her income and expenses (every penny). That way, she was able to determine her financial status: if she had overspent in a particular area one month or if she would meet her budget. Over time, she designated part of her income for savings and investments, and even retirement. We visited Amie in her new digs, brought house-warming gifts, helped her decorate her apartment, and in many ways were generous to her, but we in no way contributed to her day-to-day expenses. She was proud of her new independence, and we were proud of her, as well.

A Different Drummer
As she grew up, our younger child also had a dream. Sarah devoted her childhood and teen years to her passion for theater with a single-mindedness that amazed us. Like her sister, she engaged in activities that would further her career goals. She auditioned for and won parts in community theater and school productions, involving herself with a Philadelphia youth-theater company, even though we lived in a rural area and getting back and forth to the city wasn’t always easy. She took singing, dancing, and acting lessons, much of the time supplementing our expenses with her own income from part-time jobs.

By the time she was a senior in high school, Sarah was nailing down the leads in musicals and dramatic productions, and interning as an instructor at said youth-theater company. The summer between junior and senior years, she applied to and won a slot in a summer program offered by New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, her sole choice for college. We believe this led to her early acceptance to NYU, clinched by December of senior year.

Throughout Sarah’s college years, we paid her living expenses (room and board, as well as other basic necessities). With part-time employment during the school year, Sarah earned her own spending money, saving enough to have extra cash on hand for the semester she spent in London. (And it costs twice as much to live in London as it does in the United States.) Each summer, Sarah worked several jobs, saving toward her fall tuition payment. She usually could sock away $3000 to $4000 in 3 months. (One year, she even worked in the fall and contributed to the January payment.) She waited tables and bartended, and she taught at the city-based youth theater camp of her childhood. (In recent summers, Sarah has also worked as a freelance photo researcher and editorial assistant, helping me with my own editorial projects.) NYU’s tuition bills were extraordinary, though, and although Sarah was able to secure Tisch’s scholarship and various student loans, as financial aid, they were only the tip of the iceberg. Even Amie, once she was settled, contributed on a monthly basis to Sarah’s tuition. Getting the girls through school was always a family project.

Uncertain Employment
Now Sarah is a senior, and she confronts financial decisions that differ from the ones faced by her sister 4 years ago. She wants to succeed in the world of theater—a road that is long, hard, and uncertain. And she’s determined not to move back home to do it. In May, she will graduate with a BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Sarah hopes the Tisch credentials will open some doors, but she still will need to put a lot of time into auditioning, getting out resumes and headshots, and generally being creative in the pursuit of a career in her field. To increase her chances for employment, rather than limiting herself to one theatrical format, she is open to doing stage and film projects, voiceovers, and so on. She plans to audition for drama, commercials, and musicals. Even with such an arsenal, she still has her work cut out for her. And much of the work she does to prepare and promote herself will be unpaid--but will be real work that requires her time, just the same.

This brings us to finances, medical benefits, and other routine concerns of everyday life for adults. Unlike Amie, Sarah won’t be hired by an employer and offered a lucrative salary and medical benefits. Like Amie, though, she will incur the expenses typically associated with living on one’s own: rent, utilities, food, clothing, incidentals, medical expenses, and entertainment. This venture?like every other undertaken by the Bonners?will probably call for some family effort, even by deceased relatives, who didn’t even see this coming (um, read on, and I’ll explain).

Plan A
As her parents, we’d love to see Sarah try to fulfill her dream of “making it in New York.” Living there is just one of the challenges. She doesn’t want to live at home and commute 2 hours to auditions, and I can’t blame her—it just wouldn’t be the same experience. Her goal is to give it a year, to try to gain a foothold in the New York film and theater scene while also supporting herself. She’s already in contact with agents and receiving casting calls, and some weeks she attends several auditions for paying and nonpaying productions.

So, how to live in New York and pursue The Dream? Gary and I talked about this with Sarah, and so did Sarah’s various adult theater mentors. The trick is for Sarah to have to work only part time, to free up time to audition and market herself, but also to have a full-time income so she can pay her living expenses. She could take out a loan, but fortunately, she finds herself in a better situation: Enter Grandmom Cushing, deceased since 1995, who left her surviving grandchildren a lump sum of money, which I (as the executor of her will) put into trust for each of them. It wasn’t a grand sum, but every little bit helps. Today, it’s worth about $9000.

Right now, Sarah’s rent is very inexpensive for Manhattan ($700). This year, she decided to go outside the college for housing. She and two other girls are sharing a sixth-floor walk-up. It’s a little tight on space, but it’s serviceable. They are subletting and hoping to renew the lease. In addition to rent, Sarah pays about $70 per month in utilities. As a “starving artist,” she will need to keep her expenses in check, but with low rent like that, she is well on her way to doing so. Grandmom Cushing’s gift, plus any monetary graduation gifts she receives, should enable her to pay her rent and utilities for a year without having to earn an extra penny.

Although Sarah can provide for her rent, she needs a part-time income to meet her everyday living expenses. Her work schedule must be flexible, so she can work around her audition and practice schedules, which will change from week to week. For her to “make it,” these schedules need to be her first priority. If she waits tables or bartends, she may have to miss work to make an audition or a rehearsal that comes up at the last minute, so this type of “service” job is not the best option. Luckily, over the past year, Sarah has already proven herself to be a valuable editorial freelancer, ready to do what it takes to meet deadlines. And she can do that work pretty much at whatever time of day she wishes, so if all goes as planned, she can rely on publishing projects for her part-time income.

To complete the plan, Sarah needs to determine how much money (other than rent and utilities) she spends in a given month, and what she spends it on. Then she can create a budget for herself, much as Amie did. That will tell her how much work she will need to take on in a given month. She’ll also want to put aside some money for the months when the work or the pay is slow or erratic, as is sometimes the case. She must follow her budget, tracking her expenses, so she has control over her finances and can make informed decisions on how to spend her disposable income. (“Do I really need that new dress now, or should I spend this week’s ‘entertainment’ budget on that new haircut and perm I’ve been wanting?”)

Plan B
Hopefully, after a year, Sarah will have enough paying work in her field that she will be able to take over the rent payments herself. If not, she’ll need to reevaluate the situation and perhaps look for less expensive digs outside Manhattan. Or maybe she’ll decide to pursue work in another part of the country, where the living expenses are lower. Or possibly, she’ll decide that living at home for a while wouldn’t be all that bad. I’m sure she’ll think of some solution that she can live with, but the options will be hers to choose from, and she will feel good about her decisions, knowing they were carefully thought out.

Medical Insurance
There’s one more important issue that Sarah needs to consider: medical insurance. Most students are covered by their parents’ health insurance plans until their graduation—then they’re on their own. So, it’s important that they plan to transition to another healthcare plan upon graduation. Several options are available:

1. Employer’s benefits. (Even some part-time work, for example, at least 20 hours per week at Starbucks, offers medical benefits. See the Starbucks Jobcenter Web site for details.
2. COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act). This is a law enacted by Congress in 1986 that gives transitional medical coverage to students who need temporary insurance after they are no longer eligible for coverage under their parents’ plan. To apply for a quote, see the COBRA Web site. Note: COBRA usually costs more than employers’ plans because, unlike employer’s plans, they are individual and not group policies.
3. Some states (including New York) offer various individual medical insurance plans with monthly premiums of $158 to $330, depending on the deductible, whether a drug plan is included, and so on. You need to search by state.

Coverage can be secured to varying degrees, with the minimum being major medical (hospitalization) with a high deductible. It’s something to check out before graduation, though. Sarah will probably sign up for the Healthy New York program, although right now we’re exploring coverage offered under the various plans, deductibles, and so forth. Depending on her circumstances throughout the coming year, though, we may help her with the deductibles. Many newly launched young adults can’t afford medical insurance, and so just don’t have any. This isn’t advisable! If that’s the case with your child, please consider helping them with the deductibles, so they’re covered. Not having medical insurance can lead to major financial setbacks, should a hospital stay for any reason be necessary.

Letting Go
Enough said of logistics. What’s really important to remember when launching your child into adulthood? Keep in mind these five things:

1. Offer advice only after being asked or after warning your child that you’re about to offer some (and giving them the chance to say they don’t want to hear it!).
2. Be supportive of your child’s new life choices, whatever they are. It’s no longer your business if he stays out all night and can’t drag him/herself to work the next day—after all, you’re no longer supporting him (see No. 3).
3. Be decisive about your change in financial involvement with your child. If you plan to stop paying room and board after a certain date, give plenty of warning.
4. That being said, visits—complete with hugs, dinner out (for which you pay), and free groceries—never go out of style.
5. Show faith in your child—she’s made it! She’s a college graduate, and she’s smart enough to figure it all out. Don’t worry, she’ll have plenty of questions, but let her ask them in her own good time. That gives her chance to figure out what she can on her own, and WHAT A SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT for everyone!

If we can follow what we’ve outlined here with Sarah, I figure we’ll be doing pretty well. Even after 4 years, Amie still emails us and calls us several times a week, so we must have done something right. Sarah reports in regularly, too (sometimes several times a day). If they’re self-sufficient and they don’t hate you, then you’ve done a good job. Stop worrying. They’ll be fine and so will you. You’re not losing them—you’re just cutting the financial umbilical cord.

For More Information
For more on starting out financially, check out the following Web sites:

The Everything Personal Finance in Your 20s and 30s. You’ll find the usual, but also “Living with Student Loans” and “Digging Out of Credit Card Debt.” Chances are your child won’t need “Buying a Home” right away, but like the title states, it’s for both the twenties and the thirties crowds and isn’t likely to grow outdated soon.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Personal Finance in Your 20s and 30s. I’m not a big fan of carrying around books that label me an idiot or a dummy, but this book has some good treatments of the usual: creating a budget, finding an apartment, and so on. There’s even a chapter on “Working from Home”!

And, because this topic can be so stressful, you may find it helpful to have some comic relief on hand. If so, see Dave Barry’s Money Secrets. If you’re not familiar with Dave Barry’s work, you should be. It’s laugh-out-loud nonsensically hilarious?and true (most of it, anyway).

Another comic reliever, but from the young adult’s perspective, is Really, You’ve Done Enough: A Parents’ Guide to Stop Parenting Their Adult Child Who Still Needs Their Money but Not Their Advice. Once you get over the shock of Sarah Walker’s extreme reaction to her parents’ letting go (and her foul language). When I first picked this one up, I was really surprised: I didn’t realize it was written by a 2003 college graduate, but then again that made sense. Depending on your mood, you may get a kick out of the whole thing. I think. It is funny, though, and it does give you “their” perspective on launching into adulthood. Can you believe this was the only book I found on “launching your child” in the Parenting (or any other) section of Borders. Maybe I’ll write one. Next year.

Finally, here are a couple of sites that address the issue of kids who won’t seem to launch:
How to Launch Your Boomerang Kidult
Online Parent Support: Failure to Launch

Robin C. Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us

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