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Money (and life) tips for young empty nesters

This spring, many Millennials will experience a new milestone: Their kids’ graduations. Here is what these young empty nesters need to know.

Millennials, whether we like it or not, are becoming middle-aged — and if you were a Millennial who had children at a relatively young age, you may be facing the prospect of a soon-to-be empty nest this graduation season.

“Being firmly in the middle of the Millennial age range with two kids two and under, my empty nest is still a long way off,” says Riley Adams, a CPA and Senior Financial Analyst at Google who shares financial advice at The Young and the Invested. “However, the math completely makes sense for Millennials who had kids in their early-to-mid-20s just prior to the Great Recession.”

If your children are heading off to college this fall, you don’t need us to tell you that you’re in for a big change. And as they embark on this exciting chapter of their life, you may start to experience mixed emotions. However, this is a great time to start managing your finances during this transition — and figuring out what to do with your extra time.

So you’re an empty nester, now what? “Take a step back to think about how you envision the next steps of your life,” suggests Danielle Miura, a Certified Financial Planner™ professional who offers financial planning services for young professionals and families through her fee-only firm Spark Financials. “What do you want to accomplish? Who do you aspire to become?”

If it feels a little overwhelming to focus on yourself as you’re dealing with high school graduations and dorm room shopping sprees, we’ve got three simple questions to help you get started.

In this article:

What do you want to do with your time?

The first big question to ask yourself is simple. What are you going to do with all your free time?

When it comes to managing empty nest syndrome, some people may immediately think of hobbies, television shows or catching up on sleep to cope with feelings of loneliness or sadness. Other people may feel obligated to fill their empty hours with new responsibilities, such as spending more time with their own parents. If you’re not careful, you’ll spend your extra hours staring at social media — or becoming that parent who can’t stop checking in with their adult children.

Because of this, Miura suggests framing the question not just about time, but also about goals. “What did you wish you had accomplished before kids that you may want to do now?” she asks — and we recommend taking at least some time to think about the answer, even if the only things you can think about accomplishing at the moment involve helping your kids pack for college and planning a last big family vacation.

This question is especially important if you are a Millennial empty nester who had your children early. Some of you may have felt out of sync with your peers; others of you may realize that you are actually out of sync with yourselves. “You have structured your life around taking your children to school, going to sports events and preparing meals,” says Miura. “Now is the time to focus on your life aspirations.”

What do you need to do with your money?

The next question, of course, is how you’re going to afford your big life changes.

“Millennials in this situation are likely to fall into one of two extremes,” says Adams. “Some people will enjoy the newfound room they’ll likely find in their budgets. Other people may discover that they don’t have enough money set aside for their long-term financial needs.” While some expenses may go away, a few big ones, namely, college tuition payments, may put an even greater strain on finances.

Adams notes that some Millennials have been underpaid compared to previous generations — so if you haven’t been able to pay off your credit cards or put money towards retirement, you’re not alone. “Saving for the future is easy to ignore when you need to put food on the table.”

That said, there’s no better time to start than right now. “If you have extra room in your budget after your children leave the nest, start making sizable contributions to your retirement funds,” Adams advises. “Take advantage of any employer matches, max out all available tax-advantaged accounts and consider putting excess cash into a diversified portfolio of investments.”

What if you’re already on target for retirement? In that case, it’s time to start investing in yourself. “Some people may need to learn how to spend more on themselves,” says Adams. “This can mean more frequent vacations, paying up for better items at the grocery store or spending more money on restaurants and entertainment.”

Miura agrees that some Millennial empty nesters may be able to invest in themselves — but she suggests putting your money towards a more enjoyable career, or a career in something you’re more passionate about. Is it time for you to go back to school or get back into the job hunt? Where do you want to be in the next five years, and what do you need to do to get there?

“Once you have figured out what you want to do,” says Miura, “contribute part of your income every month to meet those goals.”

“You have structured your life around taking your children to school, going to sports events and preparing meals. Now is the time to focus on your life aspirations.”

—Danielle Miura, Certified Financial Planner

What are the next big family milestones?

The final question — and one that many married couples don’t take enough time to consider — is what comes after the empty nest? If you don’t think carefully about what your family might need over the next few years, you might not be prepared for some of the emotional and financial milestones.

For starters, your nest may not be as empty as you were anticipating. Many parents are surprised and/or pleased to learn that their fledgling college students could be returning home nearly every month, depending on the college or university’s scheduled breaks and holidays — and although colleges are beginning to transition away from hybrid and distance learning programs adopted during the pandemic, you never know when your child might need to spend an entire semester taking classes from their bedroom.

All of this travel costs money — which is to say that someone is going to need to pay for your child’s gas, plane fare, food and so on. Even if you plan on having your child cover the cost of coming home for the holidays, college students are not always the best money managers. Start saving now, because you never know when you’re going to need to cover an unexpected trip home.

Parents should also prepare for their children to live at home after college, whether it’s for a few weeks or — in some cases — a few years. Some Millennials were members of the Boomerang Generation themselves, of course, so you’re probably already familiar with the idea that it takes some young people a while to set up their own nests. The real question is whether you’re going to offer financial support during this transition — and if so, how much.

“Whether the parents decide to financially support their child depends on what they can afford and how they want to place their boundaries,” Miura explains. Some families help their children cover the rent on their first apartment, for example; other families charge their children rent for the privilege of living at home. Whatever the living arrangement may be, make sure your parenting choices remain consistent — and make sure your children understand both your financial responsibilities and theirs.

Early empty nesters should also ask themselves what might happen if their children decide to follow the same path they did — that is, to have their own children at a relatively young age. Will there be weddings, down payments and baby showers in the next five years? If so, it’s probably a good idea to start setting aside money for these major family milestones.

Some financial advisors, including Miura, will suggest that you prioritize your own financial goals first, especially if you are behind on saving for retirement. “Once your financials are in order, you can start focusing on setting aside money for weddings or helping with a down payment.” However, many families will do what they have always done and figure out a way to make it all work. After all, when your child tells you that you’re about to become a grandparent, you’re going to want to help in any way you can — whether you’re helping your child feather their new nest, or setting up a multigenerational household in your own.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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