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Don’t let your adult children derail your retirement plans

About 75 percent of students today graduate college with significant student debt. If you are a parent of one of these young adults, you know all too well the impact this has on their ability to set off on their own.

Balancing an entry-level paycheck with living expenses and student loan payments is no easy task, and the last thing a parent wants to do is see his or her child struggle or go without. The hard truth is that your natural instinct to prioritize your child's needs over your own, while well-intentioned, has the potential to undermine your financial security in the long run.

kids derailing retirement
Frank Rupenhorst | AFP | Getty Images

Equate it to a flight attendant advising you to always put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Preparing for retirement before you dole out money to support your adult children will ultimately benefit the entire family. If you don't pay yourself first, you could end up in a situation where they need to support you later in life. Below are three things to consider when discussing this topic with your kids.

1. Be transparent and honest. Even the most innocuous discussion with a child about post-college plans can provoke anxiety in someone who is uncomfortable discussing financial boundaries with a loved one. Before engaging in such a conversation, we recommend parents have a clear understanding of their finances and retirement goals. Use this as an opportunity to check in with your advisor — perhaps even accompanied by your son or daughter — to talk about the flexibility you have in your budget before any commitments are made.

Some parents opt to create an "independence fund" for their kids — a flat sum to help them get on their feet (down payment, emergency fund, moving expenses, etc.) upon graduation from college. Working with your advisor, you can set a modest goal for contributions, realistic to your own personal finances. Bringing a third party into the equation provides objectivity. It also gives your child the opportunity to reflect on whether or not he or she wants to put you in an uncomfortable financial position.

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Regardless of whether or not there is a third party involved in the conversation, it is important to be honest and direct about what you are able to offer. Eliminating this confusion can reduce the likelihood of rash emotional decisions down the road and minimizes the potential negative long-term impacts on your retirement readiness.

2. Put it in writing. Whether you have arranged to bring a financial advisor into the conversation or not, putting the plan in writing is essential. This shouldn't be seen or positioned as a "contract." It's simply a record of the agreed-upon timelines or provisions attached to your support, such as how long you'll be willing to supplement rent and/or living expenses for your child and at what dollar amount.

Taking time at the beginning of the arrangement to develop a financial plan has the added impact of helping your child calculate their everyday expenses and savings goals. After all, the long-term goal of offering initial support to an adult child should be to put yourself out of the business of assisting them financially (i.e., help your child journey forward independently). Creating a financial plan can provide the strategic insight to do so.

"The long-term goal of offering initial support to an adult child should be to put yourself out of the business of assisting them financially. Creating a financial plan can provide the strategic insight to do so."

Of course, even the most methodical plans can go awry. Perhaps you find yourself needing to reevaluate what level of financial support you can offer due to a medical emergency, or despite his or her best efforts, your child cannot fulfill their end of the bargain. Consider putting regular check-ins in your plan so you can understand the progress your son or daughter is making and address any speed bumps that occur for either of you.

If you are working with a financial advisor, make sure you consult that person about any potential changes to the plan, to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of how those choices could impact your retirement plans.

3. Teach them how to fish. No doubt, we all want to help our children — but in some cases, that may not be possible due to our own financial circumstances. Remember that you are leading by example and that parents who make financially sound decisions are more likely to have children who emulate the same practices.

In cases where parents are unable to provide financial resources, there is still an opportunity to provide another valuable tool — financial education. Take time to discuss topics such as the importance of establishing a budget, living within one's means and reviewing expenses at the end of each month. Make sure your children understand the value of contributing to an employee-sponsored 401(k) plan and having an emergency fund.

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The road to adulthood has never been easy, but with the added obstacles of student loan payments and a shaky job market, parents today have to make tough choices that balance their own financial needs with those of their children.

Starting a conversation in an open and honest way and leaning on a trusted advisor for validation can help minimize the stress and emotion around these decisions, while helping all family members prepare for the future.

— By James Nichols, head of Voya Financial's customer solutions group

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