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My son is going into debt for his girlfriend. What do I do?

The question

My son, who is in his mid-20s, is living with his girlfriend. He has always been a good-natured, conscientious fellow with an impressive ability to save money. She, as an only child, has been doted on by her parents, and has been treated as a bit of a princess. Still, they are a good couple and I am glad they are together.

But lately some red flags have gone up. My son confided that he has accumulated a credit card debt of about $10,000, and that his girlfriend has nearly $30,000 in student loan debt. My son is working at a minimum-wage job and supporting her while she finishes her degree.

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They live in a small apartment and in the last year they have acquired a dog and a cat - at her insistence. She is in major nesting mode: I know what's next, and it wears diapers. During one recent visit they told me that they are looking at homes. It was all I could do not to throw a bucket of cold water at them.

He is already putting his career second so that she can get her degree. Oh, and she's just announced that she's now thinking of going after her PhD.

Do I speak up or shut up? Do I let my son continue to be a doormat or do I give him a shake?

The answer

Well, some people might say: "Hey, your son's in his 20s, time to let go the reins of motherhood, and let him make his own mistakes."

But I'm not one of them.

These days our adolescences last much longer (I think I was about 42 before I finally snapped out of mine), and many of us could still use quite a bit of help, advice, and, ideally, cash, well into our so-called adult years.

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Sometimes I look at my oldest son, Nick, who's 13, and think: "How's he going to be in the work force and paying rent in 10 years or less? There's still so much kid in him!"

The fact you have to get used to, mommy dearest, is you can no longer tell them what to do. You are in a strictly advisory position now, and henceforward - unless they try to borrow money from you, of course.

Then maybe you'll get your old mom-juice back and be able to dictate terms once again.

Until then, though, I absolutely would jump in and start dishing out the advice. Your son and his girlfriend seem to need it.

As to what the advice, specifically, should be, well, that's a little more ticklish.

Conventional wisdom would suggest you lecture them on the topic of thrift.

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I'm a big believer in thrift. During my 20s, I lived off the proceeds of a two-day-a-week part-time job for four years, while I worked on my first novel.

That's thrifty, baby! I even discovered it is possible to live on a dollar a day. The secret is ramen noodles. In my neighbourhood they sold four packages for a dollar. You have one for breakfast, one for lunch, and two for dinner. You have to mix up the flavours (beef, pork, chicken, shrimp and "oriental flavour"), but it's true after a while they all taste the same and you crave a big, fat, juicy steak.

But I don't think thrift alone is going to solve the problem in your son's case. Did you say he's paying the rent, supporting a dog, a cat, putting a PhD-aspirant girlfriend through school, shopping for a house and planning for a family on the proceeds of a minimum wage job?

The thriftiest person in the world couldn't make that one work. Anyway, sounds like he is, or at least used to be, thrifty, a.k.a. a "saver," at least while he was living under his parents' roof.

But now he's out on his own and facing a whole new set of problems and, much as you might hate to hear it, I think unless his girlfriend gets a job - which doesn't sound like it's going to happen any time soon - your son is going to have to earn more.

And you may be the one to tell him so. Sit your son and his girlfriend down and say: "Listen, you guys, I can't just sit by and watch you sink into debt like a horse and buggy into quicksand. If you want to own a house, start a family, and have a Dr. in front of one of your names, either our student here's going to have to get a job or you're going to have to start hitting the bricks and get one that pays better."

You say: "He is already putting his career second so that she can get her degree." I don't understand that. He should be kicking it up a notch! Whatever he does, he should do it faster, smarter, better, more lucratively - starting right now.

Now, of course, you should prepare yourself for your son and his girlfriend to reject your advice with maximum hauteur, and in return offer you some unsolicited advice, e.g. remove your proboscis from their affairs.

Don't worry about it. Once you've said your piece you can relax in the knowledge you've done all you can do (other than say "no" when they come to you for a loan).

But I would definitely get in there and offer your two (metaphorical) cents, if only to protect your own interests.

Otherwise, it's going to be your son, his girlfriend (her study books splayed and strewn everywhere), cat, dog, possible caterwauling, tomato-faced infant, and so forth, all crashing in your garage or den or spare room or living room.

And I know you don't want that.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.

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