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Dear Ms. Etiquette: My old car had to be put to sleep, so naturally I asked my parents for help buying a new one. But I wondered: when am I too old to do that?
Here’s my three-word answer to that question. How about now?
How does now work for you?
Yes, I’m being kind of a hard-ass on this. But there’s a big part of me that thinks if you’re over 18, you are technically too old to be a parasite. Of course there’s another part of me that didn’t stop tapping from my own Father Keg until I was well into my mid-30s. But do as I say, not as I do. Only one of us gets to be the hard-ass here.
Let Your Parents Give You the Gift of Being Self-Sufficient.
Before we get to the car, I’m gonna get proclamation-al on you. I believe in self-sufficiency above almost all else. I believe in living within your means, setting goals, and splurging when you’ve earned it. I believe that you should never deprive yourself of the joy of eating ramen that you paid for yourself (instead of fatty toro sashimi that you did not). And making you eat that ramen is a gift your parents should give you as soon as possible. And if they don’t, you’re all going to be in trouble.
“If I was a kid and every time I asked my parents for money, they gave it to me, what incentive would I have to stop? I don’t think kids would ever stop asking that way,” says William Dobbins, a financial advisor in New England I spoke to recently. “I think it’s really important for parents to instill a sense of value and responsibility about money and finances early.”
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The Sooner You Have a Little Financial Panic, the Better.
If your parents are doing their job, they are going to let you have what one expert I talked to calls your Money Moment. “Everyone has a Money Moment,” says this expert—Chris Cobb, a financial advisor in New York. He defines a Money Moment as that moment when you realize you’re in over your head and you need to reassess.
“My dad’s happened when he was 52. Mine happened when I was 26,” says Cobb. “For me, it was when I realized I was in terrible credit card debt and just changed everything. Paying off all my credit cards and finally getting to flat was huge. And that was when I vowed never to fall into that position again and to really start saving money.”
There Are Exceptions to the “Stop. Borrowing. Now.” Rule.
There can be good reasons to suspend the no-taking-from-your-folks clause. College, down payment for your first home, and any unplanned serious emergencies. And if you don’t have a job. I believe it is permissible to borrow a concrete sum from your parents while you’re looking for a job—it’s a kind of investment.
But there are rules even then. You can ask for a loan for a down payment, but you can’t borrow money to pay the mortgage. That’s not self-sufficient! And one more thing about that job thing. In my opinion, you forfeit your right to that money if you do not meet any of the following requirements:
1. You have a pretty clear idea of what you want to do, and you’re out there pounding the pavement (making phone calls and sending out résumés) every day.
2. You have a clear end date. And you’re looking for a realistic job. You can’t just keep borrowing money forever while you wait for a job to open up as the bench coach for the Toronto Blue Jays for which you are completely unqualified. If you haven’t found your dream job in a predetermined amount of time, it’s time to get a crappier job that still allows some time to look for work.
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You Should Not Beggar Your Parents Because You Want the Sunroof.
OK, but back to the question at hand, Mr. Car-killer: Why do you need your parents’ money to buy a new car? Is it because you want a nicer car than you can afford? I’d argue that’s not a good reason. You should never borrow money from your parents just because you want to live a slightly more pleasant lifestyle. Buy a used car instead—it’s the ramen of cars.
And here we reach the single most important rule. You’re not allowed to borrow money from your folks because you want cooler stuff. If you have a job, and it pays fine, and you’re still borrowing a significant portion of your income from your parents then you might be suffering from a disease called Living Beyond Your Means.
There are remedies for this. Maybe you need to downsize where you live. Do you really need a doorman, or a gym in the building, or, you know, to not have seven roommates? (Personally, I’d rather have roommates than live a life I can’t afford.) Yes, going out for dinner three times a week is fun. But so is growing up.
Want to be happy? Getting used to living on the money you actually have will alleviate that nagging desire to have more.
And No, It’s Not Your Parents’ Fault.
You can not, despite how fun it might seem, blame your parents. If they made the mistake of never saying no to you, it’s up to you to look in the mirror and start saying no yourself.
“Now, wait a minute,” you might be thinking right about now. “But they never seem to mind lending me money. It’s a pleasure for them! Mind your own business!”
Time to go all Ghost of Christmas Future on you. Unless you’re a Vanderbilt or a Kardashian, your mom and dad’s funds are finite. So the closer you come to draining them, the more it will suck for all of you. You won’t enjoy the guilt of knowing you went full “Giving Tree” on them, and you won’t enjoy that the only full-time care they can afford is you.
“Someday, their resources will be gone, and then what will you do?” says Dobbins. “I have clients this has happened to, and it’s very sad.”
Got It? Now Pass It Down a Generation
“Encourage your kids to set aside 25 cents on the dollar of everything they receive or earn,” suggests Dobbins. “My niece did that with everything she ever got, from birthday cards to babysitting payments to her jobs in college. When she graduated, she’d saved enough to put a down payment on her first home without having to ask her parents for a dime.”
And even if your kids aren’t as parsimonious as Dobbins’s niece, you can still be firm about your loans.
“If I were going to lend money to my kids past college, I’d probably charge them interest,” says Cobb. “Of course, I’d give the interest back to them, but I’d do it to teach them a lesson so they’d be responsible about it.”
And if that sounds a little hard-ass to you, I say: good.
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