Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Lillian, Athena, and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My young adult son (24) is struggling. He moved four years ago to an expensive metropolitan area with an externship in culinary. Because he didn’t have any credit or job history, I co-signed his apartment lease.
Even though he continued with his restaurant group after his externship, COVID hit, and the restaurant industry was hard hit. He was laid off, started with a new restaurant, and was laid off again. He found another job and was laid off again. I’ve helped him with rent and other expenses during his unemployed times. However, I’m tired of the financial stress. I know he is tired of it also but he’s not willing to take any type of job that’s not exactly what he wants to do. He’s frustrated and depressed and I absolutely understand. Yet, I can’t continue to pay his rent along with all my bills. My husband and I came up with an option for him to move back to our state, which is much less expensive, and we’d still be able to help him. He doesn’t want to move. I’ve told him that next month’s rent is the last month I can pay. Why is it so hard to set financial boundaries knowing the train wreck that is going to come? And when I stop paying his rent and he gets evicted, how badly will that impact my credit?
Dear Worried Mom,
Of course, setting financial boundaries hurts. You love your son and want him to succeed. But this boundary is more complex than simply cutting him off because it will hurt you just as much as it will hurt him. I often recommend that people stop offering financial assistance to family members for a multitude of reasons. But because you’ve co-signed the lease, setting this boundary won’t protect your wallet but instead bounce back on you twofold.
You’re not simply “helping” out your son with rent. The rental contract binds you both equally. That means you share the responsibility for figuring out how to exit the lease without both of you getting an eviction on your record (something that will sorely hurt your son’s chances of getting housing without a co-signer in the future, possibly perpetuating this cycle). The landlord can file a lawsuit against you for unpaid rent (including, depending on the jurisdiction, putting a lien on your property) and drag your name into eviction court proceedings.
You should have a copy of the lease you co-signed (you are entitled to it as a co-signer). If the lease break fee isn’t exorbitant, pay it to save yourself the credit hit and headache of an eviction and tell your son he’s due to move out. You can also tell your son to research COVID-related rental assistance or unemployment insurance he might qualify for as a hospitality worker.
Your son doesn’t have to move back home with you, but he will have to either pay for the apartment or move to a place he can afford without a co-signer. He needs to understand that his financial decisions have consequences for other people. You can’t simply cut off the financial tap to teach him a lesson—he needs to see the real hardship that unpaid rent causes for his family. Involve him in finding a way out of the apartment he can’t afford—lease break fees, rental assistance, talking with the landlord, or getting a roommate. This way, your son will see how people problem-solve when they can’t afford rent, instead of relying on deposits from the Bank of Parent.
More Advice From Slate
My husband and I have been happily married for 15 years, and I am confident that we will remain so. Our children are 12 and 14, both girls. When they ask questions about money, we’ve always said that we make “about the same” or that perhaps Mom makes “a bit more, but money isn’t everything.” But the reality is that my husband has a fun, engaging, and low-paying job as a busy local musician.