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sandwich generation members with their parents and children

Sandwiched between parents and children? Here are some tips to help

For National Sandwich Generation Month, a Wells Fargo 401(k) plan professional offers ways to balance retirement savings with care for children and parents.

July 28, 2017
Jon Graff
Jon Graff

Jon Graff is the director of participant services for Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust.

Life is full of choices. Some, to me, are easy — like the major league baseball team I pull for since I grew up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and spent most of my youth in New England. But other decisions prove to be much more difficult. Should I save for retirement? Or should I instead provide housing and food for my aging parent who is struggling financially or in poor health?

Should I help my child who wants to move back home after graduating college? Should I contribute to a special-needs trust for my child with autism? Or should I save for my own retirement? These last few questions are ones I myself am currently dealing with.

Questions like these occur in households everywhere — everyday. National Sandwich Generation Month, occurring each July, honors the unique generation of adults who are “sandwiched” between caring for their children and their aging parents.

A recent Wells Fargo/Gallup survey looked at one subset of the sandwich generation — the 47 percent of investors who have children and at least one living parent. Of this group, we found that 32 percent provide some type of financial assistance to an adult child, a parent, or both. More than half of this group claims that financial strain hinders their ability to save for their own retirement.

This research indicates that many people find themselves faced with the tough choice of helping a loved one financially or saving for their own financial future. Luckily, there are things you can do to help make facing these decisions a little easier.

Stuck in the Middle Sandwich Generation infographic

Talk early and often about money

These statistics underscore to me how important financial literacy is in our society. Over the years, my wife and I have worked with our daughter to help her develop strong financial awareness. Today, she’s very fiscally responsible, carries no revolving debt, and understands the importance of living within her means. She knows “getting on her feet” means establishing an emergency fund, contributing to her 401(k) at the maximum her company will match, and saving for a down payment on her first real estate purchase.

Unfortunately, many young adults face paying crippling high-interest debt or dealing with the results of poor financial choices as they learn to “get on their feet.” Talking early and often with our kids will help improve their ability to make sound financial choices. Of those we surveyed with children under the age of 18, 70 percent have talked with their kids about the importance of saving, which is encouraging news.

Seniors can also benefit from family conversations about money. These discussions help them better understand their finances and how to manage other available resources. Our research showed that 65 percent of investors with living parents have talked to them about financial security. These conversations are essential to working toward a lifetime of financial independence.

Having the courage to discuss these potentially scary issues helps all of us better prepare to make informed decisions that are right for our families.

Plan for the future

Though financial conversations are essential, talking only gets you so far. You have to plan and start taking small steps that can add up over time. We know from our 2013 Wells Fargo Middle Class Retirement Study that generally people with a financial plan have much better outcomes — in fact, they save three times as much as those without a plan. The good news from our first quarter 2017 Wells Fargo/Gallup study is that many investors are taking the necessary steps toward financial health. A few highlights:

  • 92 percent pay their pay bills on time.
  • 77 percent are paying down high-interest debt.
  • 61 percent check their credit scores annually.
  • 57 percent have an emergency fund.

Unfortunately, only 52 percent of study participants track their spending by category, which is an important first step of planning. You have to understand where you are spending, and how much, before you can identify areas where you can cut back and save. Focusing on tracking and modifying spending habits offers a huge opportunity for members of the sandwich generation to improve their future financial outcomes.

Ask for help

Everyone’s situation is unique and it’s always OK to ask for help. We take our cars in for tune-ups. We have annual physicals to proactively manage our physical wellness. Many of us use travel agents to plan vacations.

When it comes to saving for retirement — especially when you are also financially caring for a child and/or a parent — you don’t have to go it alone, either, and our study found that most people don’t want to. Nearly seven out of 10 surveyed in our first quarter 2017 Wells Fargo/Gallup study said they are looking for professional help in making investment decisions. So seek out professional advice if you’re unsure about your next best step and learn how you can give yourself more time to save.

People in the sandwich generation deal with many unique challenges every day — from helping parents navigate medical issues to helping children learn to move out and succeed on their own. By having important money conversations frequently, planning ahead, and asking for help when necessary, those of us who feel “sandwiched” can make the financial responsibility of caring for multiple generations a little less daunting.


Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement & Trust is a business unit of Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., a bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company.

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