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Growing up, Jenny W.* knew not to expect birthday presents.
The 29-year-old's parents immigrated to New York City from China before she was born, and while they worked hard and made enough to get by — never earning more than around $30,000 a year, Jenny says, often qualifying them for food stamps and Medicaid — Jenny and her two younger siblings knew their parents didn't have extra money to hand out to their kids.
She isn't resentful. Her parents moved to the U.S. to offer their children more opportunities, for which she is grateful. As the oldest, she feels a sense of duty to her parents, and much of her life plan has revolved around getting a high-paying job in order to repay her parents for their sacrifice, she tells CNBC Make It.
"Throughout my whole working life it's been, I have to make money so I don't have to ask my parents for money," says Jenny. "My most lofty financial goal is to support my parents in their old age."
She earns a base salary of $135,000 per year in IT, but keeps her expenses low. Besides the occasional trip with friends, much of her money goes to her parents and siblings to cover most of their expenses, including rent, bills and medication. She doesn't really date — it's cheaper to be single, plus she values her independence — and prefers to save and invest her money in a way that "feels like I'm living on $50,000."
"They could have gotten much better jobs in their home countries, and they gave it all up to come here to do honest but menial work," she says, noting that her parents have worked as housekeepers and cooks. "I'm making six figures, of course I'm going to support them."
Jenny is just one of a growing cohort of millennials — those approximately 24 to 39 in 2020, per the Pew Research Center — financially supporting their parents before and through retirement.
While many headlines focus on millennials' perceived inability to save for retirement, often painting the entire 70 million-plus generation as lazy and entitled, Americans of all ages are financially strapped: 45% of baby boomers (approximately ages 56 to 74) have nothing saved for retirement and one-third of those between 67 and 72 have postponed leaving the workforce because of their financial situations.
Meanwhile, health care expenses — particularly long-term care costs — continue to skyrocket, quickly eating away the meager savings boomers do have. Among boomers with savings, the median total is around $200,000, according to a 2018 report by the Stanford Center on Longevity.
That leaves it to Generation X (ages 40 to 55) and millennials to help shoulder the financial burdens their parents face. In fact, 13% of Americans report supporting a parent, according to a survey from TD Ameritrade cited by Money.com, including 19% of millennials. Yet younger generations are also struggling under the weight of student loan debt, self-funding their own retirements and wage stagnation after the Great Recession.
Some, like Jenny, are even foregoing relationships and rethinking dreams of home ownership in order to support their parents. And as boomers get older, more and more will likely rely on their children to pay their increasing bills.
That won't be possible for every millennial, many of whom are barely able to save for their own retirements. But Jenny sees it as her duty, one that she's planned her entire life around.
"This is how it should be," she says. "If you love somebody, you want to support them."
Sarah H.*, a 33-year-old marketing executive living in Austin, Texas, first started giving her mother money when her parents divorced in 2009. Her father took most of the money, Sarah says, along with the house, leaving her mother with virtually no safety net. While she works full time, her 63-year-old mother often struggles to cover her bills month-to-month, never mind put money away for retirement.
Like Jenny, Sarah's career path has been shaped by the realization that she would have to care for her mother. She switched careers at 28, partly because she knew she'd have to care for her mother, and now makes over $100,000 per year. While she doesn't regret the change, and is happy to be more financially comfortable, she always has her mother's needs — now and in the future — in the back of her mind.
When Sarah and her wife got married, it was with the understanding that her mother would likely always need financial help. On top of sending her money for rent and other expenses, Sarah designated her mother as the recipient of a universal life insurance policy as a sort of ad hoc retirement plan. She expects to pay for her mother's full cost of living one day, or have her move into the house Sarah and her wife share. A knee surgery on the horizon also has Sarah budgeting to pay for the expenses that aren't covered by any short- or long-term disability payments her mother qualifies for.
Sarah acknowledges that her mother has had a "tough life," and that she feels some sense of responsibility for caring for her, particularly after what she describes as a nasty divorce.
"She's my mom," says Sarah. "I'm not going to let something bad happen to her."
His parents' divorce also led Brock Howard to offer financial support to his mother. Growing up, Howard's family qualified for food stamps, until his father entered the computing industry and they "went from poverty to upper middle class pretty much overnight."
His mother was a stay at home mom until about a decade ago, when she became a pharmacy technician and was able to save and invest in a 401(k) for the first time. But when the 32-year-old's parents divorced around a year ago, his father took half. His mother now lives with Howard and his wife and children.
"As of now, economically speaking, I don't see it being possible for her to step out on her own and plan for retirement," Howard tells CNBC Make It.
Howard and his wife pay the housing and utility bills, as well as his mother's cell phone. They are also helping his mother set up some basic financial accounts, and plan to help with medical and long-term care costs in retirement. In return, Howard's mother watches the kids, which saves the couple on child care.
There is some tension, he concedes, saying that his mother often calls millennials "lazy" when she sees news reports about them moving back home with their parents. He finds the trope tiring, and his mother's comments ironic, noting that most of his friends his age are helping their parents or extended families financially, whether through support in retirement or with day-to-day expenses and bills.
"I get frustrated that you get lumped up in the millennial bubble, that we're seen as lazy and not planning and not working toward the future or something bigger than ourselves," says Howard. "I know more people who are doing this than those who aren't."
That irony aside, the multi-generational living situation has been beneficial for the entire family, bringing grandparent, parents and grandchildren closer together, and allowing them to lean on each other when the need arises in a way that would not have been possible before.
The dynamic became even more important recently, as Howard's wife "finished up a tough journey" with stage 3 breast cancer. With all of the unplanned medical bills the family accrued, his mother's support, especially with watching the couple's children, was "instrumental" in helping the family keep things as normal as possible and financially solvent through a difficult and potentially traumatic process.
"What we originally thought was us helping her was her helping us," Howard says. "We got this surprise blessing that made a really emotionally difficult season less painful. If you look at it from a family, emotional and legacy standpoint, that was our big win, knowing that we were able to take care of each other."
*Some sources requested that their full names not be used to protect their parents' privacy.
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