How to talk to your adult child who is taking on too much debt

As many American families are well too aware, taking on too much debt can be a crippling mistake. Astronomical credit card or student loan payments, car loans, mortgages, and other forms of debt can add up and become financially debilitating. If, and when, an individual is ready to start fighting back the mountain of debt they’ve accrued, it’s a stressful, uphill battle.

It’s better to never have started down that path in the first place. So what if your adult son or daughter is beginning to take on too much debt? While debt can certainly harm a young adult’s financial security, a parent must still respect their child’s status as an adult who isn’t obligated to accept advice.

Moreover, people can be very sensitive about money, no matter how old they are. So how do you offer your adult children sound advice regarding debt, without coming of as condescending or accusatory? The following advice may foster a productive dialogue about debt.


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  • be proactive, not passive
  • listen attentively
  • be empathetic
  • offer solutions and alternatives
  • educate yourself

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  • condescend or accuse
  • get upset
  • only use personal experience for your reasoning
  • go in without a plan
  • lend money without stipulations

Scott Smith‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do be proactive, not passive

People will often avoid difficult, direct conversations, but if you’re concerned for your child’s well-being, don’t put off the subject. Sending your kid an article about financial stability through email or social media is too passive. Pick up the phone or, preferably, meet face to face, and don’t be shy about having the conversation. Hopefully, you wouldn’t push away that very same advice from your adult child if the tables were turned.

Do listen attentively

Sometimes, we can make bad financial decisions because we don’t know any better. Other times, we may know we’re making the wrong decision, but feel we don’t have better alternatives. Once you’ve broached the subject and are having a discussion, listen attentively to identify where the issues may lie.

Do be empathetic

Adult children will be more likely to open up about their financial situation, and their approach to debt, if you demonstrate empathy—the ability to understand another person’s hardship and feelings. Try to express that you understand their circumstance, and if you have experienced the same yourself, make sure to say so.

Do offer solutions and alternatives

Given your own life experience, you may be able to think of solutions and alternatives that they have not. Are they taking on too much debt for things they want, or things they need, or both? Regardless, you may be able to offer a fresh perspective.

Do educate yourself

Your life experience, as we’ve mentioned above, may be all you need to know that your child is taking on too much debt. However, do your homework before having the conversation. Read up on issues that affect credit, alternative options to maxing out credit cards, ways to save money, and tips for good financial behavior. That way, you can back up your arguments with well-researched evidence.

Scott Smith‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not condescend or accuse

Remember when it was your parents giving you advice? Did you ever feel belittled, or that they were condescending? Chances are you stopped listening at this point. Try to avoid coming off as accusatory or condescending, because your loved one may react by becoming defensive and reject your good advice. Most importantly, don’t treat an adult child like a child. Never lose sight of the fact that they’re no longer obligated to do as you say.

Do not get upset

Money, like it or not, is an emotional issue for many people. It directly affects issues like health, happiness, family well-being, and more. But getting upset during this conversation is unlikely to result in desirable outcomes. Try to keep your emotions at bay, because getting angry, upset, or overly emotional can cause your children to respond in kind.

Do not only use personal experience for your reasoning

The basic principles underlying the dangers of indebtedness haven’t changed for centuries. However, other realities have. Basing your information on what worked “in your day” isn’t the best approach. When you were your child’s age, college was cheaper, the job market was different, and certain industries that are commonplace today did not even exist. Taking the viewpoint that the struggles of later generations are caused solely by laziness, entitlement, or other personal weaknesses is insulting and unlikely to gain a listening ear. Should you use personal financial experiences as a talking point? Sure. Should you assume that your experience is the only one that applies? No.

Do not go in without a plan

Before you start a conversation with your child, make sure you have a game plan. Establish a goal you wish to reach—some examples could be a promise to do better, a game plan for reducing debt, or a review of the child’s budget. Then, come up with the talking points you feel will be important to reaching that goal. Having a plan in mind will keep you from getting off track and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Do not lend money without stipulations

Your adult children may need financial help or support from you to help them avoid going into further debt. If that also fits your own desires and financial ability, there’s nothing wrong with this. However, do not lend money without a clear definition of where it is going. Any lender can set a few conditions ahead of time. For instance, you can stipulate that you’ll lend money for essentials like clothing and groceries, but not for recreation or wasteful spending.

If you’re worried your love one won’t use the money for the right reasons, you can give in the form of grocery store gift cards, gas cards, and other cards that are tied to specific goods or retailers.


Use these tips to start a financial dialogue, whether your child is saddled with a mountain of debt, or is just beginning to start their financial independence. Honest and informative conversations are the key to both offering helpful advice and maintaining good relationships. Now that your children are grown, they need and deserve to be treated like adults, and this includes having mature conversations about money.

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