Stop treating parents as ATMs

You're grown up – act like it. And parents: let go.

I've heard a lot lately about my generation clinging financially to our parents. There are books, there are studies, there is a general groan from the sandwich generation – baby boomers caring for both their parents and their grown-up kids. What I don't understand is how so many of my peers have failed to grasp the basics of a tight belt.

I was one of those teens who left the house at 18 – literally. The day after that birthday a decade ago, I loaded up my parents' car with my precious few earthly belongings and we took off on an eight-hour drive to Evanston, Ill., for freshman orientation at Northwestern University.

Standing in the confines of my tiny dorm room that afternoon, shortly after meeting my roommate, my mom and I exchanged a long, quiet embrace. When we pulled apart, we both wiped away tears.

Then I turned to my dad. He gave me his signature bear hug, took me by the shoulders, and said: "You're on your own now. We did what we could. The mistakes you make are your own; just do your best to learn from as many of them as you can."

The cord had been cut. And it felt great. My parents had made certain details quite clear. For one, my room at home was no longer my own, but now a guest room, and I would be a guest when I visited. Yet these didn't feel like rules. I was being treated, and therefore respected, as an adult. Giving up my room and other dependencies was merely part of that ritual.

In truth, my parents would spend the next four years putting what they could toward my $30,000-a-year education. But when I had to borrow money to make it through my first summer internship, they made me sign a promissory note, and I managed to pay back the loan in six months. Even expenses such as flying home for the holidays were entirely up to me. It may be hard to work 20 hours a week and make 'A's, but it's not impossible.

Fast forward 10 years. I've made a serious dent in my college loans and put my husband through nursing school. We do the basics – balance our checkbook, budget our cash allowance, deposit a small amount into our savings account every month. We've even started looking at small, modest houses as we start saving toward the big 20 percent down payment.

By cutting the cord when they did, my parents encouraged me to figure out the general dos and don'ts of spending and saving money before I even graduated from college.

But the thing is, it isn't all that difficult. You learn what you can afford and you do without the rest. It completely baffles me that so many adults our age have trouble with these basics and still rely so heavily on their parents.

Maybe I'm subconsciously preselecting financially responsible friends, but we all work. Hard. And when we play, we are reasonable, going out for brunch instead of dinner, biking instead of driving, watching movies at the second-run theaters. You get the idea.

My thrifty, self-reliant peers are proof that our generation isn't composed entirely of those who have a greater sense of entitlement than responsibility. And frankly, for parents who cast themselves as victims of their supposedly conniving, self-absorbed squatter children, I think the proverb about reaping what you sow might apply.

By the same token, my generation is far enough into adulthood to take responsibility. Maybe we should rent studio apartments, use cardboard boxes as furniture, learn to cook, resist the iPhone, and trade in our cars for bus passes. If our parents have cut us too much slack, it's time we cut some for them.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is a freelance journalist in Portland, Ore., and the editor of

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