4 Steps to getting your grown child out of your house

Nov 6, 2014 at 3:05 p.m. ET

These four steps can help a fledgling who's having a hard time leaving the nest.

Dear Amanda:

Our 23-year-old son graduated from college last year and moved back home. Even though he has two part-time jobs and an internship in his field, it's not much for him to realistically live on. In the beginning we were happy to help him out, but I just don't see him making any progress toward independence. In fact we often argue about how much he spends on new technology and going out with friends. Though my husband and I love him dearly, we wonder: How can we help him launch, short of kicking him out?

- Ready for Empty Nest

Dear Ready:

Your family is hardly alone in this predicament. A recent Pew study found that 61 percent of young people age 25-34 have a friend or family member who has moved back home, and if you were to poll your friends you might discover that almost three in 10 parents of adult children (29 percent) report that a child of theirs has moved back in with them in the past few years. A combination of high unemployment among recent grads, the rise of the intern economy and reliance on lower-wage shift work has thrown some pretty big boulders onto the path to independence.

But a recitation of the hard facts and knowing others are in the same boat won't help your family... and it is your family, not just your son... work through this transition. How do we get you to that empty nest? Let's look at the Four T's.

T #1: Teamwork

The most important question is: Do you and your husband see eye to eye on this issue?

If not, then the first thing is to resolve any differences the two of you have regarding the timing, priority and what you consider reasonable to ask your son to contribute to this process. Without a united front, there is a risk that any difficulties over the coming period will put stress on your marriage, especially if your son balks at what you're asking of him. Unresolved parental differences can also lead to one parent being the "good guy" and the other the "bad guy." It's no fun to be the bad guy, and it certainly won't move you closer to move-out.

With you and your husband on the same page, the next step is to recruit your son onto the team. Though free rent and a stocked fridge would be hard things to give up, you shouldn't assume that your son is any happier than you are to still be living chez Mom and Dad. It's time for an honest conversation. What exactly are his goals, and how does he think he's doing in working toward them? He may be feeling quite frustrated but not sure how to do better, and if your participation is constructive, he may welcome your help.

T #2: Transparency

By living in your house, your son has to be willing to forfeit a degree of his adult privacy (if you're still washing his underwear, in a sense he's already done that). You have a right to know what his income is, and how he budgets his spending. The key objective here is collaboration, not to call him out every time he buys a video game or a round of beers.

In fact, by helping him strike a reasonable balance between daily spending versus saving toward his goals, you're actually teaching him an invaluable lesson in financial responsibility. Keep in mind that you may not see eye to eye on the definition of "reasonable" here, so that leads us to the next T on our list.

T #3: Time frame

Where Junior wants to nudge the spending needle toward more discretionary funds in the day-to-day, point out in concrete terms what that does to the time frame. The time frame is going to be based on exactly how much he needs to save in order to have the funds he needs to be independent. That goal should be specific, tied to reality (equal to three months' rent plus security, for example, as opposed to some number that just "feels right"), and mutually understood by all parties. Based on his budget, you should know exactly how long it will take to reach the savings goal.

If the issue is less about savings than it is about insufficient income, you can still create more structure in the job search front. You may not control the timing of when he'll get a well-paying job in his field, but you can set up expectations like a half hour per day going through employment postings or networking, two resumes sent out each week, etc. that will help him stay disciplined and focused in his job search.

T #4: Tactics

Once everyone has a clear set of expectations, my guess is that you will probably already feel much calmer. However, if you're still itching to rent him that U-Haul, consider some other tactical moves to speed up the move-out date, such as:

  • Offering a "matching" program, where you and your husband will match any contributions to savings that he makes over and above the expected monthly amount.
  • Create target incentives, where if he saves certain amounts ahead of schedule, you'll throw in "bonuses" like covering moving costs, purchasing or gifting a piece of furniture, etc.
  • Consider subsidizing his independent living. If the difference between him being home with you or in his own place were, say, $200/month, would that be an amount you'd be willing (and able, according to your own financial goals) to pay? When you're all in this as a team and you have the trust that comes from transparent collaboration, you can consider if there are other ways to support your son's progress toward independence. I'd recommend putting a time frame on this one, too, though. A permanent subsidy doesn't help anyone become independent!

Though I know this situation has become uncomfortable, it can be one last opportunity to really parent your son and help him grow up to be the kind of man you know he can be.

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