I have a friend whose mother is helping her through college. It had always been just the two of them as her dad had walked out years prior. They planned for college since my friend was in junior high, and her mom saved and made sacrifices in order to get my friend to the school she wanted to attend. Lucky her, right?
Well, now she’s feeling a squeeze on the funds from her mom. She’s currently in grad school, so everything is more expensive as it is. But, her mom calls her the other day and tells her that she can’t pay full price for tuition anymore because her grandfather is moving in and he’s in critical condition. They’ll need to have a live in nurse and other medical equipment…all of which costs money. My friend, being the good person she is, told her mother not to worry, she’d find a way to finance school.
But suddenly, my friend’s mom went from being a single mom with an empty nest to being a part of the sandwich generation.
What is the sandwich generation?
The sandwich generation are those who find themselves in the precarious position of helping your children with their college education, while at the same time, looking after the needs of aging parents.
What challenges can you expect to face?
You’ll be going from a full house to an empty nest and back again. For couples planning to use the empty nest as a time to reacquaint themselves, this shock could easily put that period of your life on hold. It will take some planning and adjusting to find a level of comfort in the sandwich generation.
- Boomerang children or Failure to Launch syndrome
On top of possibly caring for elderly parents, you may experience having your children return home after divorce or college, or not leaving at all. Having both the kids and the ageing parents in the same house can be a strain on your finances and your nerves. You’ll need to prepare yourself for this as well.
- Like many other Americans, finances in general may be a concern
If you’re taking on debt at an alarming rate and have your parents and/or children that you’re looking after, it could really stretch your finances to the limit and beyond. Where do you draw the line on this? Your retirement accounts are suffering, but your parents and children are depending on you. Effective planning is the key to avoiding this uncomfortable situation.
Planning for the future
Holding down a job and keeping a family together are hard enough, so worrying about the other stuff tends to get put off. Unfortunately, putting it off can be a dangerous thing for you when you hit that dreaded in-between stage. Not only are you worrying about your own retirement, you’re trying to help your kids pay for college and take care of your elderly parents. That’s a lot to ask of any one person. Fortunately, if you spend a little time planning, these events will come and go with very little problems.
- Saving for college
For those of you interested in helping your kids pay for college, the best thing to do is to start paying as soon as possible. There are plenty of programs out there that will help you save specifically for college expenses, it’s just a matter of taking the time to research them.
Also, talk to your kids about having realistic expectations for college. They may dream of a 4-year private school, but if it’s too expensive, that could add to your stress if you can’t afford it. Discuss the situation with them and go over scholarships and other forms of financial aid, as well as, the possibility that an equally good public school may be a better fit for their situation.
- Saving for retirement/staying out of debt
When dealing with your own retirement, it’s important to put away as much as possible. Likewise, it’s equally important that you keep your debt down. Most people find it hard to put money towards retirement when they have a mountain of debt. So, keep your debts around 20% of your take home pay to maximize your savings. For some this may seem like a pipe dream at first. But, it takes work. Get there and you’ll be significantly increasing the amount available for your savings and retirement.
It’s also important to remember to revisit your goals regularly and adjust as needed. This is particularly important when you face a major life change, such as getting married, having a baby, changing jobs, or losses in the family.
- Caring for your parents
As uncomfortable as it may be, you need to have a conversation with your parents about their long-term goals and preparations. Do they have long-term care insurance? Do they have retirement income, or are they relying solely on social security? It’s also important to have an understanding of what accounts they have and where, find out where they keep all of their financial and real estate documents, who they work with on their investments, and who advises them about their finances in general. That way, if something happens, you’re not floundering around trying to figure this stuff out, you already have the information in hand.
Balancing Family Needs
As difficult as being in the sandwich generation is for you, it can also be hard on your kids. If they’re in their teenage years, they’re already facing a difficult time in their lives and this is the time they need your patience and attention most. If you are preoccupied with taking care of your parents, your children may feel neglected and angry. The negative reactions to that can cause you even more stress, so it’s important to try and strike a balance between your family obligations, if for no other reason than your own sanity.
- Talk to you kids about the upcoming changes. Usually, most of them are pretty good with having their questions and concerns addressed, and they adapt to change quite well.
- As I mentioned above, discuss college with your kids in detail. If they have to settle for a different college to make it work, then they need to be made aware of that ahead of time. You’ll want to avoid using your retirement funds to pay for college, though. Your kids can repay their student loans back from their salaries, but your retirement doesn’t work that way.
- If you have boomerang kids or ones that have failed to launch, don’t be afraid to discuss your expectations with them. At some point they will have to spread their wings and fly on their own, so things like an expected departure date should be discussed. And don’t be afraid to ask for a little rent. If you’re struggling financially and trying to help your kids out, charging them a small amount for rent could be just the ticket. It helps you financially and teaches them some responsibility with rent payments.
- Take care of your family first. If you’re parents are living with you, you may feel their needs are always more pressing than yours or your children, but this is a dangerous trap to fall into. Your kids depend on you for their well-being, so it’s important not to neglect them when trying to take care of your parents. You’ll have to find a balance that works for you and your family.
- Take care of yourself. Being a part of the sandwich generation comes with it’s fair share of stress and agony. You’ll be run ragged before you know it and the only way to keep your patience and sanity about you is to take some time for yourself. If that means you need to take a day off to get your hair done, do it. Get plenty of rest and maintain your friends and interests. Keep open lines of communication with your family and friends and everything will be just fine.
What do you guys think? Any of you in this generation? What tips and advice can you share that may make it easier for others facing these challenges?