40 years old and still tied to Mom and Dad's purse strings

For years they willingly shelled out money - lots of it - for their children. They paid for music lessons and sports equipment, for clothes and toys, for orthodontia and college tuition. Then the nest emptied, and parents assumed the outflow would largely end.

Wrong. These days many parents are facing a new fact of life: ongoing financial help to their adult offspring, even into middle age.

Whether parents rise to the occasion voluntarily to spare their children a struggle, or whether they are being used as ATMs, their generosity is creating a new "cash-dependent" generation tied to parental purse strings - and sometimes apron strings - longer and longer. Financial planners see layoffs, exorbitant housing costs, divorce, and single parenthood as some of the difficulties driving the trend.

"Parents of adult children are probably doing more right now than in previous generations because of the economy and job situation," says Susan Newman, author of "Nobody's Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship With Your Mother and Father."

It's not just an American phenomenon. In Britain, one-quarter of parents expect to help their offspring financially through their 30s and into their 40s, a new study finds. One in 4 parents contributed money toward an adult child's car, and 1 in 5 helped pay for a home, according to Lloyds TSB. Others gave middle-aged children a regular allowance or pocket money for daily needs.

It all adds up to big money - an estimated £20 billion ($34.8 billion) a year.

Financial advisers in the United States see similar patterns, and warn that this financial aid can drain retirement savings, jeopardizing parents' economic future. "Some parents don't seem to be able to turn off the spigots," says Ann Perry, author of "The Wise Inheritor."

She adds: "That's when you have a problem, when there seem to be no shut-off valves."

It is common for parents today to give all or part of a down payment on a child's house, she says. Others help a child start a business, or help pay for grandchildren's college tuition. "These are productive uses of money gifts between generations," Ms. Perry says. "They can be a great leg up in life."

That is the hope of Pat Housley of Mount Pleasant, Mich. She shares her house with her 30-something daughter, who has moved back home to finish a business degree.

"I asked her to come home and live, because trying to help her financially stay in South Carolina and work full time on her own wasn't working," says Mrs. Housley, a widow who works at Central Michigan University. "I want to help her achieve her goals in life by becoming independent in a job that pays a good wage and benefits. Without the education, she isn't going to fulfill those dreams."

To save money to help her daughter, Housley gave up her vacation this year and will probably do the same next year. "It's worth it," she says.

Gimme, gimme

For other parents, financial assistance becomes a burden. One professional woman in Georgia, who asked not to be named, has spent tens of thousands of dollars supporting her daughter, a divorced mother of two in her 40s. When the daughter was starting a business and needed money, the two women pooled resources and bought a house together.

The mother, who is in her mid-60s, pays the housing costs. She also spends $2,000 a month for a nanny for her grandchildren. Her retirement funds are shrinking. "Right now my bucket is empty," she says.

The inability to say no when adult children ask for money is the biggest problem many parents face as they try to stretch their retirement money, says Kay Shirley, a certified financial planner in Atlanta. She expects the problem to get worse.

The British have even coined a word for these offspring with outstretched hands: Kippers, or Kids in Parents' Purses Eroding Retirement Savings.

Some financial planners describe a typical parent who won't say no as a single woman in her 70s. "The women complain about helping these children, but they can't stop, even though it means they're going to run out of money in a few years," Perry says. "They fear that if they stop, it'll damage the relationship somehow." Indeed, some parents give money beyond their means as a way to keep control over children or to encourage dependence.

Whatever the situation, grown children's reactions can range from feeling manipulated to feeling guilty and embarrassed, says Ms. Newman. "Many ... I spoke with felt it was demeaning."

Some adult children regard parents' money as a birthright and feel entitled to have at least some of it now. If parents cut off that money, Ms. Newman says, children may be angry. To them, she says, "Realize that this parent is protecting you in the long run, and doesn't want you to be his or her financial caregiver later in life."

But saying no to offspring remains hard. Baby boomers in particular, Ms. Shirley finds, have been accustomed to saying yes to their children. They want them to maintain the lifestyles the parents have created.

Yet loans remain important in some families. Martha Chesser of Winston, Ga., and her late husband lent money to each of their four children, stipulating that they must repay it.

"They have all paid us back," she says. "I don't think that's tough love. We do our kids a disservice by just handing them money and not making them responsible for themselves."

From the mouths of the babes

Even if grown children do not repay the money, some find other ways to show their appreciation. A New Jersey woman who wants to be identified only as Carolyn says she was always grateful when her parents helped her financially.

Today the tables have turned. "Now that my parents need some help and my husband and I are in a better financial position, we have no problem reciprocating."

She sees "a lot of takers" in her generation who "expect their parents to give them a lot."

For Lori Landers of Atlanta, parental support comes in response to specific needs. "When push comes to shove, they help me out," she says. They paid her car insurance until she turned 27 last year.

"I'm grateful to have parents who can do it," says Ms. Landers, who works for a financial development company. "At the same time, I realize maybe it has made lessons harder to learn. ... When I finally had to pay for car insurance, it was like, 'Whoa, $350 is a lot every three months.' "

Parents, too, learn hard lessons.

The Georgia woman who is depleting her funds to subsidize her daughter says, "I try to help her in any way I can, but I found that's not really good. You want everything to be good and perfect for them, but you can't buy it for them. They have to make it themselves."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.