Moving Back Home After College A Survival Guide for New Grads & Parents

Meet the Experts

Sandy Fowler Parent, podcaster, parenting advocate and educator Read bio
Emma Fowler College grad, writer and speaker Read bio

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Andrew Lisa Read bio

For the current crop of recent college graduates, moving back home with mom and dad is so common that they’re called the boomerang generation. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of millennials ages 25-35 moved back home in 2016 — that’s a far higher percentage than previous generations when they were the same age. While this can be an amazing opportunity for empty-nesters to reconnect with their children and for those children to regroup, save money and plan for the future, it can also become problematic. This guide looks at the good and the ugly of moving back home after college. Whether you’re the graduate moving back home or the parent welcoming their child back home, get expert tips on how to make this a smooth transition and ensure it’s just a temporary situation.

Why Moving Back Home Will Suck

For most graduates, moving back home with the parents isn’t their first choice after college. But sometimes it’s necessary, especially if you don’t have a steady income and need a little more time to get on your feet.

Sandy Fowler is a business owner and — through her podcast, coaching, speaking and writing — is deeply engaged in the inner-workings of the parent-teen dynamic. But she’s also a mom who welcomed her daughter, Emma Fowler, back into her home after Emma graduated from college. The transition wasn’t easy for either one of them. Here are some of the major reasons moving back home will be challenging for both parent and child.

For Sandy, one of the biggest drawbacks was giving up the intimacy and privacy to which she’d grown accustomed while Emma was away. “While we love having our child around, my husband and I miss all the time we had for just us,” Sandy says. “We spent a few years rediscovering ourselves as a couple, finding new ways to spend our time and we really enjoyed that.” In fact, a long-term study conducted by The London School of Economics and Political Science found that boomerang children – adult children who move back home – caused a significant decline in parents’ quality of life and well-being in Europe. The study noted that parents were forced to find a new equilibrium after their child left for college, but when that child moved back home after college, the equilibrium is lost. Though this wasn’t exactly the case for Sandy, it was still an adjustment.

But the same goes for graduates. When you’ve been away from home and are used to living on your own, it can be difficult to lose some of that independence and go back to checking in with mom and dad. “The graduate is used to making many more of their own life decisions, from their homework and daily schedule to their food and transportation,” Emma says. “This may clash with unspoken expectations of the parents, who are likely not adjusted to their child’s new autonomy.”

Readjusting to the presence of another person under her roof, however, wasn’t Sandy’s biggest concern. She also worried about friction in the parent-child dynamic and the potential of stalling her daughter’s growth and progression. “It complicates the evolution of the parent-child relationship,” she says. “This is a time for the child to be taking that next step into adulthood and the parents need to shift gears again, giving the child total responsibility for their own life. Having the child living at home complicates that shift.”

Emma points out that when a graduate moves back home after college, the framework for that living situation is often based on the pre-college cohabitation experience when mom and dad were busy parents and the child was exactly that — a child. After college, that model no longer works, but sometimes it can be easy to slip back into old behaviors, which can quickly create tension. “Both parties have certain expectations based on an old dynamic that doesn’t apply anymore,” Emma says. “And that often leads to misunderstandings and arguments.”

When living in a dorm or an apartment with friends, it’s easy to have a social life. You’re constantly running into someone you know in the hall, there’s always someone to hang out with and people come and go at all hours of the day. This won’t be the case back at mom and dad’s house. Most of your friends likely won’t be nearby anymore and even if they are, things still won’t be how they were during your college days. Life will be even quieter if you went to college in a big city and are moving back to small town or suburb.

Moving back home can make a graduate feel like they’re regressing. These emotions can sometimes deepen into depression, particularly for adult children who have lost the sense of community they felt while in school and feel like they’re no longer progressing alongside their peers. Symptoms of depression can include a lack of interest in things that should be exciting and the urge to sleep excessively or stay in bed. Parents may mistake these behaviors for laziness or a lack of ambition. But even if the emotions don’t get that severe, many grads do find it hard to stay motivated and focused when back in their childhood surroundings.

One of the biggest reasons kids move back home after college is because they’re broke, in debt and/or because decent work is hard to find. Even if they pay rent and help with bills, it’s rarely at market price. After all, what would be the point of moving back home if you’re going to pay what an actual landlord would demand? That can put pressure on the parents, who may have just gotten over the hurdle of paying for their children’s education and who are creeping ever closer to retirement. When their children return to the nest, parents may be forced not only to scale back on their short-term spending, but to neglect their retirement funds all together.

Most college grads move back home to save money. But it’s actually really easy to overspend – and not save – when you don’t have to pay for big expenses like rent and utilities. Having recurring expenses like these tends to force people to track spending and keep an eye on their budget but that’s usually not the case for new grads living at home, which means movie tickets, concerts, coffee, shopping trips, transportation, etc. add up fast.

Why Moving Back Home Won’t Be So Bad

Yes, there are drawbacks to an adult child moving back into the old childhood digs, but it’s not all bad. Both parties stand to gain — and even grow — from the experience. Here are some of the reasons moving back home won’t be as bad as you think.

When students become graduates, they generally leave college and enter true adulthood with a diploma and little else. That rarely qualifies them to quickly find housing and work that’s lucrative enough to allow them to do much more than just survive. This is particularly true if they’re one of the millions of Americans who leave college saddled with student debt.

By reclaiming their old bedroom for a few months — even if their parents ask them to contribute something financially — they can stave off the financial pressures of the real world and amass savings faster than someone paying full cost of living expenses on their own. When it’s time to finally strike out on their own, they can do so with a financial cushion that almost certainly wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t spent a few months living with mom and dad.

For Emma, college expanded her horizons, instilled in her a sense of self-reliance and opened up a whole new world of possibilities — but at the end of the day, there’s no place like home. Safety, security and familiarity can be a powerful thing for a young adult looking for a base to regroup, reassess and plan for the future. “Grown and graduated or not, there’s often something reassuring about returning home,” she says. “It provides a sense of security while you’re planning your next steps, be that job-hunting, applying to graduate schools or preparing to move for your new job.”

For Sandy, the single biggest benefit of having her daughter back home was that her daughter was back home. “It’s wonderful to have her around again!” she says. Having the empty nest feel a little less empty — particularly with the addition of a youthful, ambitious presence — can be invigorating and rejuvenating for parents. “Having her home gives us lots of time to simply be together but it also broadens our horizons,” Sandy explains. “She has different interests, so I find myself doing things that I would not normally do. She also adds a fresh perspective to conversations.

There’s also the little yet not-so-little benefit of simply having an extra set of young, strong hands around the house. Extra hands at home can mean additional help with chores, someone to pick up the younger kids after school or someone to fix the little things around the house. “To be completely honest, it’s nice to have another person helping with cooking and cleaning and other logistics of running a household,” says Sandy.

Living at home can serve as a practice run for the demands of independent adult life. No longer in high school, the recent grad can use this time to learn about and practice the basics of financial planning, building and maintaining healthy credit, establishing financial accounts, shopping for loans and investing. This dry run can let them explore and navigate these complex matters with a safety net. Once they’re out on their own, the pressure is on and the stakes are much higher.

For some grads, a few months of living at home can provide a boost in self-esteem and also take weight off the shoulders of worried parents. When grads prove to themselves and their parents that they can work, save money, take care of themselves, exhibit discipline, set goals and be responsible, both can find relief in knowing that the young adult is truly ready for adulthood and that the parents — finally — can relax a little.

How to Make the Transition Easier

No matter how strong the relationship, healthy cohabitation between parents and graduates takes work on the part of both parties. It will take some getting used to no matter what, but the entire process can be easier if both child and parents are proactive. Here are some tips to help you along the way:

  • Speak to each other like adults

    In households with a high-schooler, it’s common for parents to command and kids to rebel. But this doesn’t work after college. If the transition to moving back home is going to work, both parties must open new channels of adult dialogue. “Communicate clearly and respectfully,” Sandy says.

  • Set clear expectations

    For Sandy, clarity in terms of what is expected from both parties can go a long way to preventing problems. “Have a conversation where you ask your child how they envision this time at home, what expectations they have of you and what their long-term plans are,” she says. “Be sure to also convey your expectations of them and cover the house rules. And when issues come up, have another conversation.”

    Emma concurs. “Respect your child’s independence and be aware that your household dynamic will be changing,” she says. “Having a discussion on habits, rules and expectations for both sides can really help.”

  • Make sure it’s not an open-ended affair

    It’s incredibly important for both parties to discuss and agree upon a clear timeline. While it doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast “out in four months no matter what” type of scenario, an open-ended arrangement often disincentivizes action on the part of the child. A timeline also provides light at the end of the tunnel for both parties when the going gets tough, which is bound to happen from time to time.

If you’ve got a diploma, a cap and a gown, congratulations — you did it. But your folks are the ones being asked to carve out a chunk of their world for you to sponge from. The ball is in your court to take the steps to make things easy not just for yourself, but for mom and dad too. Here’s what you can do:

  • Act like an adult

    You may feel like a teenager every time you set foot in your parents’ house but if you’re going to live there as an adult, you’ll need to figure out how to act like one. “Start out by talking to your parents, sharing your plans, letting them know what support you’d like from them and offer to contribute to the household in whatever way you can,” Sandy recommends. “Then continue to act like an adult, accepting not only the freedom and privileges that come with it, but the responsibilities as well.”

  • Be open to learning from your parents

    You have a shiny new diploma, but your parents have decades of life experience — try to look at them not as guardians, but as mentors. Emma points out that parents can be a valuable resource for young adults who are still trying to figure out this thing called life. “Your parents’ experience and methods for finding a job and housing may be older, but that doesn’t mean the skills involved are irrelevant,” she says. “If you don’t know where to start looking for an apartment, or fully understand taxes or managing a budget — ask them. They’ve been doing these things for a while and probably know tips and shortcuts that you won’t find on the Internet.”

  • Talk openly and frequently

    You can also avoid friction with transparency and communication. “Make sure at some point to sit down with your parents and discuss how daily life is going to work, as you’re used to doing more things independently now and they likely have expectations for you as long as you’re living in their house,” Emma explains. “The sooner you do this, the more misunderstandings and arguments can be headed off at the pass.”

  • Earn your keep

    Even if your parents don’t demand it, contribute as much as you can wherever you can. Don’t sponge, don’t freeload, don’t force them to pick up after you and don’t make your footprint any larger than it has to be. Make your presence there something they will later remember fondly.

Parents, you’re not off the hook. Successful and healthy cohabitation is a two-way street. Here are some of the things you can do to avoid complications:

  • Be patient and supportive

    When the inevitable friction arises, both parties should be mindful that the situation is probably less than ideal for the other. But parents in particular can help by exercising some patience with the graduate, who is likely having difficulty adjusting to the enormous and often stressful change in life circumstances. “Emotional support may be required as it sinks in that college is actually over, and there may be some verbal and emotional flailing as the child fully processes that,” Emma says.

  • Set clear expectations upfront

    Sandy was happy that her kid was moving back in, but she was also perfectly aware that she’s not a kid anymore — and accepting that reality made all the difference. “First, if you haven’t truly done it yet, start treating them like an adult,” she says. “Be sure they are carrying their own weight, contributing to the bills if they have a job, sharing in household chores and shouldering responsibility for their own life. Treat them like an adult. They should pay room and board if they have a job. If they don’t have a job, then they should be job hunting regularly as well as shouldering a large amount of the daily chores in the household. Let them do their own laundry, cook their fair share of the meals, run their own errands and live without pocket money if they don’t have a job.”

  • Don’t revert back to the role of caretaker

    Sandy may have let Emma get away with not doing her own laundry or cleaning up her own messes in high school, but those days are over and she eased the transition after college by making that clear to her daughter. Sandy knew, however, that if she was going to insist that her daughter act like a grownup, she had an obligation to treat her like one. “Let them make their own decisions and set their own schedules,” recommends Sandy. “Curfews and similar rules go out the window and common courtesy becomes the standard of conduct.”

  • Be supportive but still allow your kid to fail

    According to Sandy, parents should smooth the transition first by resisting the urge to regulate their children and steer their every move, the way they may have — for good reason — when the child was in high school. “Be patient but allow them the gifts of responsibility and failure,” she recommends. “Let them make choices, take actions, enjoy the rewards and clean up the messes. Let them know you are there for them and believe in them, then let them do it.”

How to Avoid Failure to Launch

Once you’ve worked out the kinks and found a good rhythm, it can be easy and even safe to just continue living at home. But even if both parties feel that things are going great, this shouldn’t be a permanent situation. Here are some strategies to avoid failure to launch and ensure young adults make it out of the parental unit’s house and become self-sufficient:

Surround yourself with motivated, go-getters

As cliché as it may sound, it’s still often true – you are the company you keep. If you’re hanging out with friends who are spending all day doing nothing and aren’t planning for the future, there’s a good chance you’ll lose sight of your own goals and stay stagnant. It’s important to surround yourself with people who are focused, driven and advancing in life. Seeing the people around you move forward and achieve their goals can motivate you to do the same.

Treat applications like you would any other class

“The one who is most organized usually wins in this process,” says Neha Gupta, founder of College Shortcuts. Gupta recommends that students who are disorganized start by creating a checklist but also seek outside help. “I recommend creating an Excel document, getting a filing box and taking good notes. It’s just like an added course on a typical high school course load.” However, she points out that, unlike a typical high school class, there is no teacher reminding you of upcoming deadlines or pushing you to stay on track. “That’s why most students procrastinate,” she says.

Redecorate

For many, moving back home can feel a lot like going back in time, especially if your parents’ house and your old room look exactly the same. Redecorating your room can give you a sense of ownership and also help you feel less like a teenager living at home. Changing these visual ques and surroundings can also help put you in the mindset you need to get your ducks in a row.

Set a date

Accountability can be a huge motivating factor. To ensure you don’t get too comfortable at home and overstay your welcome, give yourself a deadline to move out. Write it down, circle it on a calendar, set a mobile alert and tell all your friends and family. Setting a firm move out date and making it well-known and visible often makes it harder to ignore and can force you to do what it takes to keep your word.

Set goals

Don’t allow yourself to get too comfortable or lazy. Once you have a move out date, map out the steps you need to do to make it happen and come up with daily, weekly or monthly goals to keep you on track for the big day. For example, you could have a goal of sending out at least two resumes every day or putting a certain amount of money in a savings account each week to save up for an apartment.

Parents: give a gentle nudge

Sandy reminds parents to remember that when it comes to their children’s lives launching or not launching, their fingers are on the blastoff button, too. Relentless pressure isn’t helpful, but neither is no pressure at all. It’s up to the parent to remind the child that they’re not there to party, play video games and hang out all day. Nagging rarely works, but nudging is often necessary. If the child loses focus, the parent shouldn’t ignore it and instead remind them that this time is precious, valuable and limited. And if they’re struggling or feeling overwhelmed, good advice and encouragement can help lift their spirits and get them back on track again.