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Tips for cohabiting when your college grad moves back home

By Diane Schwemm


In May, family traveled to Massachusetts for my middle son’s commencement. It was the second joyful college graduation celebration for us — our oldest son graduated two years ago. 

Which makes this an anniversary: two years ago, our oldest moved back into our house in Colorado, where he continues to live with his father, our pets and me.

For the record, I will not be bashing millennials who move home after college. This kind of living situation is ever more common. At my 35th college reunion this spring, I lost count of the number of classmates who mentioned that their recent grad lives with them. In a few instances, this is stressful because it’s connected to a grad having been disappointed in a first job (and quitting and returning to the nest), or dealing with personal struggles. Some young adults are overwhelmed by the transition from college to the "freshman year of life."

Our son got off to a bit of a slow start that first year out but ended up accomplishing a lot (he worked a full-time seasonal job at our local ski area, took an EMT course and became a certified EMT, joined two local choral ensembles, and finally — happily — landed that first “real” job in his field, physics). He is hard-w0rking and frugal and we’ve coexisted pretty happily throughout. And even though it’s about time for him to head off on his own, he’s been good company and a respectful, helpful and (mostly) clean housemate. 

We didn’t know when our son moved back that we were looking at a long-term arrangement, so the main thing I imagine all of us parents have learned is that these situations unfold differently for each graduate and their family. Some grads move home just for a few months; others make it a layover if a first job in another location wasn’t really what they were looking for and they need to regroup and try again. Some grads find a great position close to home and living with their family for a while lets them save money (especially important if they have student loans).

Has your new college graduate landed back in the nest? Here are insights and suggestions gleaned from many parents about how to make the arrangement work — for both of you.

Discuss expectations for the arrangement

If your student is looking for a job, you want to talk about their goals and routine during this period. Some families set a timetable for when the grad will move out on their own; others think it’s okay to shoot for a move-out date but be flexible.

Two moms on why it makes sense:

Sarah: “The transition from college student to worker bee is a hard one... It’s nice to have the safety net and structure of a family home for the first 6–12 months while you learn how to work Monday through Friday (no skipping classes or sleeping in!).”

Heather: It takes the stress out of finding a place to live — a process that, if rushed, can end with a less than ideal choice that you’re stuck with for the length of your lease.

Talk about the fact that this is a new chapter — for both of you. They may be living in their childhood bedroom but they’re no longer a child or even a student. They’re a fellow adult in the household which means they act like an adult (and you treat them like one).

There’s more below about communication, rules, money, etc. but in a nutshell, it’s helpful to discuss some if not all of your expectations for the new routine. Be clear that chores will be shared. One parent recommends: “Point out what you are providing, even if you are happy to do it — just so they know up front (and maybe acknowledge from time to time) all the tangibles and intangibles, from housing, food and access to a car to potentially keeping them on your health and car insurance and mobile plan for a while longer.”

Money

Will your grad contribute financially to the household? This is up to you. Some families ask their grads to pay at least a token amount of rent; we waited a year to begin this with our son, but he actually said he appreciated it because it made him feel more grown-up.

Some parents collect rent but put it in a savings account for the grad to put towards an apartment when they move out. Others prefer to see their grad build up some savings, and perhaps even invest some of what they’re saving or start a retirement account.

In general, parents pretty universally feel that grads should pay for at least some of their own food and all of their incidentals (clothes, personal items, travel — unless it’s with the family — and entertainment). If they have their own car, they should pay to maintain, fuel and insure it. And at some point, wean them from your cell phone plan.

Remember that your own financial security is a priority. Don’t make their college loan payments for them and don’t offer to pay first/last/security deposit on their new apartment if this is really not something you can afford to do.

Social life (theirs and yours)

Will your grad want to have friends over to your/their house? One parent recommends that you tell your grad to ask you first if the plan is okay before inviting people over (for example, at this time on this day to watch this program/sporting event). They should ask your permission to use the TV, family room, etc. The same friend observed that her son and his friends were usually pretty good about cleaning up after themselves at these times (“beer cans in recycling, trash taken out!”). 

She added: “You will have to make peace with making yourself invisible when friends come over; give them space. They do not want to hang out with us and their pals together. Say hello MAYBE and disappear.”

What about significant others? Different families will feel differently about this, but it’s important to have an arrangement everyone is comfortable with. Let your grad know if their significant other is welcome to stay over in their room or a guest room. If your grad will spend the night at someone else’s place, it’s courteous of them to let you know in advance.  

What if your grad doesn’t appear to have a social life? Encourage them to join an adult sports league, reconnect with the faith community they grew up in, reach out to old high school friends who’ve settled in the area, or take advantage of local cultural events. Before you know it they’ll be out so much, you’ll miss the days when they seemed to have nothing better to do than watch Netflix with you.

On that note, one parent shared this piece of advice: “Keep making your own plans and doing what you want; i.e., don’t wait around to hear whether or not they’re coming home for dinner, will be around for the weekend, etc.” Live it up, ‘rents! 

Communication, rules, helping out

The son of one of my friends lived at home between college and law school and she said, “We respected that he was an adult and could navigate his own life so we didn’t have any rules aside from letting us know his plans so we could plan.” Texting was great in college and will continue to be a practical way to communicate with your grad.

Parents all agree that the grad living at home needs to pitch in, whether it’s taking their grandmother to a doctor’s appointment, doing some errands and cleaning, helping care for pets, and cooking (if you eat meals together). 

It’s reasonable to ask them to keep you informed about what nights they’ll be eating dinner with you so you can plan meals. In addition, if they’re going to stay overnight somewhere, or go away for the weekend, they should let you know at least the minimal details of their plans ahead of time.

Be careful not to assume they’ll want to join you for every (or any) evening or weekend activity. Talk about these as they come along and be clear about which are important to you that they join.

Consider a few basic rules (perhaps similar to those you enforced when they were home from college on break): 

  • Keep their room decently clean and stay on top of laundry. (But one mom said: “Let them dictate the messiness of their room. I drew the line at trash. The clothes on the floor and chairs made me nuts, but I let that go. They’re living with you, but they have lived independently and have their own systems and habits.”)
  • Grocery shop/cook occasionally and do the dishes when they don’t cook.
  • Respect others in the house who are on different sleep schedule. 
  • Help with yard work, taking out the trash, etc. when asked.

Frustration points

An unemployed grad without a plan or forward momentum will be sure to drive hard-working parents crazy. If your grad isn’t employed yet, you may want to set the expectation that, while looking for a job related to a potential career, they should at least find a part-time intermediary job or a volunteer responsibility. Sarah says insisting that they put structure to their day (“You have a job search but you also have a life. Decide how often and when you will exercise, do errands, see friends, volunteer, look for and apply for jobs, etc.”) helps with their mood — and yours, too, as it makes it less likely you’ll come home from work to find them on the couch playing Nintendo.

Other common frustrations arise from a lack of communication, which we’ve already addressed, but it’s worth reiterating. One parent wished her grad was more forthcoming with “news” (“I get irritated that she doesn’t like to reveal her whole day and everything she does...but that is just her”). Another parent takes the point of view that it’s not fair to expect a conversation every time they come through the door. “They are coming ‘home’ after work and might want to be left alone or have some quiet. They will find you when they want to chat; don't ambush them.”

Another potential area of frustration or conflict can be when one parent (in a two-parent family) finds it harder than the other to navigate life with an adult child in the house — especially if one parent had gotten used to (and enjoyed) peace, clean and quiet while the other welcomes the return of a daughter or son and the chance to get to know them better during this phase of life. This is something to be mindful of and talk about.

Then there are the bonuses and unexpected joys.

Having a grad move back home for a while can be a boon for families that still have younger children living at home. Sibling relationships can become closer and there’s more company for everyone. I really appreciated this when my husband was traveling a lot during my youngest son’s senior year of high school but his older brother was around so there would be three rather than just two of us during what was a stressful time for the younger one.

One parent mentioned how much she enjoyed the casual moments with her grad, even if it was just five minutes in the morning before work, and simple pleasures like the occasional dinner together and watching sports on TV. “In general, I really love the energy of having him here and I will bawl my face off when he moves out.” Another parent seconded this. “We knew that this would be for a finite time period… Enjoy having your adult child at home because it won’t be forever.”

A few more tips to make sure they successfully “adult” while living at home:

  • Don’t be over-involved in their job search. Help them network and steer them to career coaching resources if necessary.
  • Make sure they’re on a budget and focused on saving for the future.
  • Work is mandatory, even if a dream job isn’t currently available, for forward momentum, routine, self-confidence, etc. This is real life, not summer break.
  • Encourage them to be creative about the kinds of housing they’re open to on their own: co-housing, a room in a larger apartment or house, etc.
Diane Schwemm is a writer and senior editor at CollegiateParent. She and her husband are parents of a college student and two recent graduates. In her off hours, she likes to read, hike and garden and, thanks to the influence of her family, appreciates ballet and basketball equally.

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