Making the switch to financial independence

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(Illustration by Lizzie Jenkins)

Her rent is paid, her tuition check comes on time, books follow that, and the leftover cash is used for shopping and fun. All this sounds like quite the dream, but in reality, what is it doing for this student’s personal growth as a young adult?

Eleanor Mika (formerly Eleanor Pope), a junior studying public health, has had the majority of her college expenses paid for by her parents. Mika recently got married this winter, and all of that changed.

Larry Nelson, a professor in the School of Family Life, explained his thoughts about financial ties to parents in emerging adulthood. He and his colleague, Laura Walker, have been extensively studying the topic and its impacts. Their study analyzed students based on different expense categories: tuition, books, housing, food, living expenses and entertainment/social.

“We broke up our sample into groups based on what the parents paid for,” Nelson said. “The first group was parents who did everything for their children financially.”

Nelson continued studying the groups to see what kind of risk-taking behaviors they engaged in.

“If you take the results of our findings, the group that was partying the most makes sense — it was the students that had everything paid for by their parents,” Nelson said.

Nelson mentioned that students have less interest in their education, and less motivation to do well, when everything is paid for. On the other hand, he also studied students who had no financial contributions from their parents whatsoever.

“For those who do not get any help, it is just overwhelming,” Nelson said.

From his study, those who were not receiving help were working hard.

“They were being forced into adult roles early, so they naturally felt more like adults, which some would say is a good thing,” Nelson said. “I’ve seen students who are very bright get kicked out of the university academically because they are working too much and cannot keep up.”

Nelson’s findings caused him to raise the question of whether these students really receive a college experience or an education.

“Those who pay their own way don’t have time to get involved as teachers’ assistants, research assistants, in volunteer programs, etc.,” Nelson said. “They don’t get the crucial résumé-building experiences.”

Nelson explained the best-case scenario comes from the third group they studied, who contribute to their expenses but also have help from others.

“The groups who do the best are those who contribute to their college education by working or maintaining a scholarship so they can have ownership,” Nelson said.

In his opinion, that ownership is where students develop a sense of responsibility and adulthood at a crucial time of life.

According to USA Today, only 16 percent of Americans ages 18–25 consider themselves adults. Among the top three factors in considering oneself an adult is financial independence.

Mika’s father told her he would pay for her college education from the time she was a young girl.

“My dad always said that he wanted to help me get an education, so he would pay for it, but it has been clear that will not continue when I graduate or get married,” Mika said.

Mika said as she progressed through college, her parents gradually paid for less and less.

“When I had a job, my parents paid for my housing and tuition, but I paid for my own groceries, gas and entertainment,” Mika said.

One she got married, Mika’s parents cut her off financially. Looking back on her financial ties to her parents, she feels it had a positive effect on her.

“I think it was a good thing; it helped me so I could just focus on school,” Mika said. “My parents would give me a set amount and have me manage it each month; if I ran out it was usually tough luck.”

Learning to manage a fixed amount of money helped Mika gain a sense of independence.

“I have not felt completely independent or like an adult, but I have found that through managing my expenses and my time I have learned to budget and be smart with money,” Mika said. “I remember one month spending too much on clothing and having to figure out what I would do for my gas that month.”

Mark Ogletree, a marriage and family professor at BYU, believes total financial independence is a positive action for students to take whenever they can as they step toward adulthood.

“As I have pondered over this issue, I have concluded that couples or students who are being bankrolled by their parents lose opportunities to develop faith; they miss the chance to develop a lifeline to the Lord; and they forgo experiences that will forge their character,” Ogletree said.

Ogletree then recalled some of his own experiences from his counseling and teaching career.

“It seems like the majority of students are working to pay their own way,” Ogletree said. “I think that is so healthy, and it allows for proper maturation at this stage.”

He feels that financial independence at this stage builds the qualities you need for adulthood.

“It develops a work ethic, patience, humility and a reliance on the Lord,” Ogletree said.

Ogletree recommended becoming as financially independent as one possibly can. He feels it creates strong couples and students who show their maturity and self-reliance.

This issue presses the question, where is the appropriate line for parents to step in to help their children financially?

“There are so many approaches to parenting,” Nelson said. “The biggest hindrance I have found in parent-child relationships is control.”

Nelson explained that autonomy is essential to develop at this stage of life for college students. He has also found that when he asked young adults what they need to feel like an adult, an equal relationship with parents is in the top five. Financial support from parents can actually delay this.

“The older children get, and especially while away at college, the harder it is for parents to control their children behaviorally, so parents turn to monetary control,” Nelson said.

He recognizes that the transition into adulthood can be extremely difficult and that financial help is needed.

“For the sake of the relationship, their child’s progress and development, there needs to be financial support that is not linked to control in any way from parents,” Nelson said.

According to Nelson, ultimately parents need to figure out how to provide support and warmth in a way that grants autonomy and therefore lowers control in their young adult’s life.

Whichever group students fall under, Nelson and Ogletree agree that there are multiple ways to approach this issue. The bottom line is that students need to be contributing in any way they can to transition into adulthood with confidence.

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