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My parents and I are both still repaying student loans that covered my college education.
After graduating, I walked around wearing an invisible overcoat of guilt, worried that their debt on my behalf might affect how soon they'd retire or pay off their mortgage. I failed to recognize that, justifiably or not, they helped me pay for college because they felt it was their job. A lot of parents do.
Parents covered a third of their kids' college costs through borrowing, income and savings in 2016-17, according to Sallie Mae's "How America Pays for College" report. More than 40 percent of those parents said they'd be solely responsible for repaying loans they took out, without any help from their kids.
Just 11 percent of students believed their parents should take on that burden.
Once we're working and mature(-ish) adults in our 20s and 30s, we might start to feel like we should return the favor of financial assistance. But there's a difference between feeling vaguely guilty about your parents having shouldered college costs and seeing clear signs that they're struggling to pay bills.
First, assess whether you truly need to help your parents financially now, and focus on growing your earning power for the future. There may indeed be a day when you need to swoop in. Be ready for it.
1. Get the facts, offer resources
An assumption that your parents are scrambling to stay afloat may be wrong. Get a true sense of how they're juggling student loans, retirement savings, housing costs and other bills.
Notice whether they're making cutbacks, like not properly heating or cooling their home, not buying necessary medication, or no longer keeping fresh food in the house, says Jean Setzfand, senior vice president of programs at AARP.
That could mean they're not able to meet basic needs. Search for federal and state financial assistance programs for seniors on AARP's website. You can also ask about resources available through your local senior center or state office for the aging, says Quentara Costa, a certified financial planner and owner of Powwow LLC in North Andover, Massachusetts.
Maybe your parents are financially stable now, but they're nearing retirement and you're worried about how much they have saved. Opening up about money can be emotional and embarrassing, and they may not want to talk about their account balances with you. Consider offering to pay for a financial checkup with a certified financial planner, or find one that offers pro bono services through your local chapter of the Financial Planning Association.
2. Focus on your earning power
You shouldn't go into debt, eat into savings or sacrifice your career to financially support a parent. Prioritize making sure your own finances are healthy first. Build a cash cushion that includes at least three months of basic expenses, save for retirement at least up to any match your employer offers, and pay all bills on time and in full.
That may take some time to achieve. But think of it as a long game: "Earning power over time is the biggest asset for an adult child," says Dan Andrews, a certified financial planner and owner of Well-Rounded Success in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Focus on your financial strength and career in your 20s and 30s so you can step in later, when your parents are older or no longer working and they need to lean on you more heavily.
Making and saving money means having flexibility in the future to help with medical expenses or housing, or to take your parents on vacation, Andrews says. You could even save up to buy a two-family home to accommodate them one day. If you can't help out now, there are countless ways you'll be there for them in the future, just like they were there for you.
Your job isn't to repay your parents' generosity dollar for dollar. It's to love and treasure them, and maybe to mow the lawn every once in a while.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Brianna McGurran is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
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