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You’ve heard it a thousand times: Take care of your retirement needs first, then consider whether you can afford to help an adult child financially. It’s like putting the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting your young child on a plane, they say, and then … the word “no” somehow gets stuck in your throat.

It’s hard to blame the adult children. After all, in many cases, they’ve seen parents deny themselves before — and they are living very different lives than the parents did, said Kathryn Hauer, a Certified Financial Planner based in Aiken, S.C. She said a lot of the parents probably lived in dorms or apartments with other people, starting at age 17 or 18 — and shared bathrooms. That’s not what dorm life is like now; many more students have private rooms, and lots of universities have state-of-the-art fitness centers. Living “like a college student” used to mean castoff furniture and roommates. Hauer said it may be easier to adjust to a life of near-poverty when you’re still in your teens than when you’ve finished college and are accustomed to what were once considered luxuries — international travel and comfortably appointed living quarters.

So you can’t blame young adults for asking. They’ve grown up with the idea that parents sacrifice and provide for them. To many, that’s the natural order of things. And some parents don’t change that — ever — putting themselves at great financial risk.

Sometimes, an adult, out of tradition or a sense of duty, says “yes” when the answer should be “no.”

“I had a parent call me to ask me if they should take out a loan, charge on their credit card or withdraw from their retirement the $10,000 needed to gift the adult child for the child’s wedding,” Patricia Grenier, a Certified Financial Planner in Springfield, Mass., said in an email. “This adult child already owned a home and was living with his fiancée. I advised against taking on debt or raiding the retirement account.”

Grenier related the story of another couple who helped an adult child with a down payment on a house when they really could not afford it. “This parent is ready to retire, has not saved enough,” she wrote. “The situation does not look promising for the spouse if the primary breadwinner should predecease her. The husband will need to work part-time in retirement, the wife will not be able to retire for a while. It was very hard to lay out the situation to them. There were lots of tears.”

Which brings us to what may be the easiest way to say no: “I asked our financial planner, and he/she said we can’t afford it.”

1. When You Can’t Afford It

Hauer said she could see three situations when a “no” is called for, and she offered some sample scripts parents can use, including even when they can afford to financially assist.

If giving money would jeopardize the parents’ retirement, “you could tell a child, ‘If we based our decision to give you money on how much we loved you, we’d give you every penny we had. However, we are getting older and we need the money we have to live, and we can’t give you the $5,000 you’re needing without putting our finances in jeopardy. So we have to say no,’” she said.

2. When That Money Is Already Being Used Elsewhere

The other scenarios are more difficult. What if you could afford to help if you forgo the trip you’ve dreamed of (and saved for) for years? In that case, here’s what Hauer suggests: “Say something like, ‘We love you so much, and we know you would like us to give you that $5,000. If we do, however, we can’t do our cruise this summer. We’re getting older, and we want to enjoy ourselves while we can, so we’re going to spend on ourselves instead of you.’”

Could this response result in hurt feelings? Tears? Accusations of parental selfishness? Absolutely, Hauer said. Still, parents can explain that they have put off some things they wanted to do for a very long time while raising children. Life is too short for the parents to go to the back of the line every time. It’s often hard for parents to do this because they feel guilty about not putting the children first, even when they are adults, Hauer said.

3. When the Purchase Is a Bad Idea

Finally, parents may get a request that they have the means to fulfill, but think is a bad idea. The young adult has had bailouts in the past and doesn’t seem to have learned, for example. Here’s how Hauer suggests phrasing the “no” then: “We can’t help you out with the $5,000 you are asking for. We’ve helped many times in the past, and we don’t think that help has made you stronger. It’s hard to learn how to make wise financial decisions, but a person has to learn sometime. We’re here to love you and support you emotionally, but you will need to solve your own money problem.”

In that case, support could include things like making sure the young adult knows how to check his or her credit and how to budget. (You can monitor your own credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.) Parents may also be able to help boost an adult child’s credit score by making them an authorized user on a credit card — without actually giving the young adult the card.

A Time to Say ‘Yes’?

That doesn’t mean parents should never say “yes.” If you have the means and you think it is in your child’s best interest, it’s fine, Hauer said. But in reality, most older adults do not have the means. Having the money in a savings account is not the same thing as being able to afford to give it away. However, if the young adult has a life-threatening emergency, the parent may choose to spend money earmarked for retirement, even if it means a scaled-down lifestyle later.

The saddest situation is when parents are afraid that saying “no” would result in their child cutting off love and attention. “The average child will be a little miffed,” Hauer said, “but it won’t last forever.”

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Image: KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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