A Long Path to Financial Self-Confidence

In accepting cash from her mother, she assumed the identity of an underearner. How one woman learned to support herself—at 41

by Eliza Slate
Photograph: Brian Cronin

I had been dating my latest Match​.com interest for a couple of months when he asked the question I had been dreading: “Hey, why isn’t your name on the buzzer panel?”

“Huh?” I replied, feigning confusion.

“While I was waiting for you to let me in, I saw that somebody else’s name is on your apartment,” he said. “Is it your stepdad’s?”

My stomach flip-flopped as I realized I had to tell him the truth that could end our tender new relationship.

My parents pay my rent.

I’m 43, and for a decade up until about two years ago, my mother and stepfather paid $2,000 a month for me to live in my Manhattan apartment, plus $600 a month for my health insurance. I needed the help at first. After spending years working in newsrooms, I had returned to school to receive my master’s degree in journalism during a recession, and my summer reporting internship hadn’t turned into a job. I was also getting divorced. My mother, who wasn’t a fan of my ex, didn’t want money to keep me from moving forward—and moving out.

It was a gift most writers dream of. My parents’ help allowed me to pursue freelance writing without having to worry about securing full-time work. But as the economy improved—and I began to look for jobs, including ones outside journalism—my mother warned me not to derail my career just to make rent. “Being able to help you is what I’ve worked hard for my entire life,” she said.

So the arrangement stuck. But as grateful as I was, I felt ashamed. What kind of respectable adult lets her parents pay her rent? It doesn’t exactly mesh with our American value of self-reliance. Worse, it doesn’t reassure a prospective partner that I could hold up my half of a mortgage.

Except I’m not alone: A 2011 nationwide survey of nearly 700 nonstudents ages 18 to 39 found that nearly 60 percent received parental assistance, mostly in the form of housing, insurance, transportation or help with living expenses. The survey didn’t take into account other types of support, such as family vacations.

In my case, my mother was paying to compensate for everything she wished she could have provided for me when I was young—like piano lessons and expensive trips. She established a successful company when I was in my late teens, and was deeply proud when she could pay for college tuition and take me skiing or traveling in Europe. In her mind, money could make up for a lot. But I often wondered why she continued supporting me for so long. As her nearly 20-year marriage to my stepdad hit the rocks, I started to see through her generosity to her underlying fear: growing old alone.

Money, it seemed, was a way to keep us together. Even though I never felt quite right accepting it, I could always talk myself out of my uneasiness because I believed I would feel worse refusing it. When I moved to New York from the West Coast a decade ago, my mother and I both assumed I would eventually return. But the longer I lived on the East Coast, the more I realized I wanted to stay here.

It may not sound logical, but accepting my mother’s money somehow made me feel less guilty about the fact that I did not intend to move back.

Still, whenever I heard her grumble about tumbling stock prices, I felt another kind of guilt. “Do you need me to step up more?” I would ask.

She’d wave her hand dismissively.

Then, about two years ago, she told me that she and my stepfather couldn’t subsidize me anymore. The recession had hit them hard. They sold their expensive home, gave up their luxury cars and filed for divorce.

A few months later, my stepdad’s secretary forwarded me my rent and health insurance statements. A wave of nausea washed over me as I tried to imagine how I was going to suddenly double my income.

First published in the April 2014 issue

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