Boomers look for ways to spend money after kids grow up

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2003

NEW YORK The youngest kid just left for college. Better still, the youngest just finished college.

So what's a parent to do with all the extra time that used to go to parenting, or all the extra money that used to go to tuition?

For some whose nests have recently emptied, it may be as easy as suddenly discovering the time to read or perhaps even take up bocce.

For others, if they're not saddled with college loans that will take years to pay off, it may be time to feather the nest lavishly with a home improvement, flee the nest with an extravagant vacation or replace the nest altogether with a new home.

Jeannine Washburn, a 59-year-old mother of two, emptied her nest this spring with the graduation of her youngest, a son, from college. But the transition to life after child rearing began before the final tuition bills were paid.

At her son's urging, Washburn purchased a new home near the ocean in an upscale development in Plymouth, Mass., where the former school principal and tea-cher moved from nearby Middle-boro slightly more than a year ago.

''For all these years I've been working and saving, so being the frugal person I am, I needed a little kick,'' said Washburn, who took an early retirement after 36 years in public school education. ''My son was the driving force. He was on the cusp of his adult life and he wanted mom to be happy, so he encouraged me to make the move from my home in Middleboro, where I basically would be living alone in a house in suburbia as a single-again woman.''

Once she made the move, however, Washburn needed little prodding. She quickly settled in as an unofficial activities coordinator at The Pinehills, a 3,000-acre development where more than half the 300 or so residents are empty-nested baby boomers. Over the past year, Washburn has organized a daily walking club, yoga classes, a fishing group and a theater company, The Pinehill Players, who currently are in rehearsal for their first show, scheduled to run in September.

''I'm fulfilling a lifelong dream. As a young person, I always wanted to go into drama. But it was pooh-poohed in my day because it wasn't considered a real job,'' said Washburn, who with the encouragement of neighbors and Pine-hills officials has now formed a company, Enterprises for Educa-tion and Entertainment.

Washburn is one of an estimated 26 million baby boomers who are parents, but no longer have children under age 18 living in the household, according to a national survey in 2002 by Yankelovich Inc., a marketing consulting firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Those numbers, of course, will only grow with the graying of the boomer generation. With more than 12,000 boomers turning 50 every day, there are millions more who may be nearing the empty nest stage of life, said Chuck Underwood, a generational business consultant.

For those parents who took out loans to finance college for their children, graduation may not bring immediate financial relief.

But since many boomers saved aggressively through the years to prepare for college expenses, the spending power within this segment is potentially greater than among boomers as a whole.

Notably, nearly half of those boomers surveyed by Yankelovich who were still rearing children at home or paying tuition said they envisioned a big splurge once the kids move on.

Still, it's unclear how many will follow through on such impulses with retirement beginning to loom larger on the horizon, life savings still beaten down by the stock market's collapse, and the economy still looking shaky.

''Many boomers have been ambushed in mid-career by layoffs, retirement-fund scandals, their own failure to save enough money for retirement, and other financial setbacks,'' said Under-wood, who also noted that in a troubled economy, the end of college may see children return home rather than immediately striking out on their own.

So rather than selling the house and heading cross country with a recreational vehicle though some do many of the recently empty-nested and those soon-to-be pursue more modest changes for life after the kids.

Karen and Al Reichers have three children: a son who graduated from college a year ago, a son who is due to graduate next May, and a daughter who's a senior in high school and will be heading off to college in a year.

Rather than looking to yank up their roots once the last is off to school, the Reichers recently embarked on a home improvement to their house in Eastham, Mass.

''We would have never been able to do this when the children were younger or when both boys were in school,'' said Karen Reicher, 50, who works as a school nurse.

With the middle child due to graduate before the youngest starts college, ''it's a little bit easier on the finances.''

As such, the Reichers finally found themselves in a position to finish their basement and build a new deck with a $7,600 hot tub made by ThermoSpa, a company that says 81 percent of its customers do not have children under age 18 living at home.

Then again, Reicher noted, ''it would have been nice to have the basement as a playroom'' when the kids were younger.

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