Gayle Lomax of Columbia figured she had successfully launched her first child from the nest four years ago when her daughter moved to Washington to attend Howard University.
But six months ago, her daughter was back home, no longer able to afford her apartment on a part-time job and saddled with more than $5,000 in credit card debt. The 22-year-old has finished school and is working as a waitress while searching for a job in television production.
"The prospects aren't really good. She may be home longer than a year or so," said Lomax, a single parent.
Across the country, more and more parents are finding their adult children returning home to live for months or even years when they had been expected to be deep into their own lives. The latest census figures show that 56 percent of men and 43 percent of women ages 18 to 24 live with one or both parents.
These so-called "boomerang kids" are appearing on their parents' doorsteps for reasons that include a lackluster job market, health problems, divorce or the realization that they can't afford the kind of lifestyle their parents offer.
Parents are often happy to help their adult children get on their feet, both financially and emotionally.
But an offspring's return is frequently a financial burden. In serious cases, where adult children repeatedly boomerang home, their parents' lives can be derailed, financial planners say.
"Children are the No. 1 financial risk to parents, far beyond anything that the stock market can do," said John Bacci, a financial planner with Foundation Financial Advisors in Linthicum.
Young adults who come home frequently expect to pick up where they left off -- living rent-free in their old room, with Mom and Dad footing the bills, experts say. Food and utility costs shoot up. Parents might pay health and auto insurance and supply a monthly allowance. Many children arrive deep in debt, and some parents feel obligated to bail them out.
Money shelled out to help adult offspring means fewer dollars going toward the parents' goals, including retirement.
James Klima, a financial planner in Ellicott City, bluntly told a Howard County couple recently that their retirement plan is being jeopardized by their two daughters, both in their 30s and divorced.
The couple want to sell their large house and move to a smaller place on the Eastern Shore. They haven't done so because each daughter has come home two or three times in the past five or so years, Klima said. By continuing to support their daughters this way, the parents risk a lower standard of living in retirement, he said.
"It's an emotional tug of war. Doing what you need to do for your own best interest and giving in to your kids' failings," Klima said.
Lomax said she postponed some discretionary spending, such as travel and replacing an 8-year-old car, when her daughter returned.
"There are some things that I would love to do that will have to wait," she said.
Living rent-free at home has allowed her daughter, Sharon McDonald, to use her paycheck to paying off the credit card debt.
"I kind of miss being on my own," McDonald said. But she added: "It's convenient. Free food. No bills. I'm glad to have my mom close by."
Lomax, a vice president at T. Rowe Price Investment Services, said her generosity has its limits.
"The prospect of her being at home at age 30 would scare me to death," said Lomax, 44, who also has a son in college. "I'm at a point in my life and understand money enough to know that I'm going to do what I need to do to make sure my retirement is taken care of."
Many parents who welcome their adult children home acknowledge that they wouldn't have dreamed of doing the same thing when they were young.
"We were actually in the mind-set that once you get out of the house you're an adult and ... you have to make your own way," said Dalene Robinson, 60, of Ellicott City, who jokingly referred to her two adult children as "revolving-door kids."
"The kids today can't make their own way," said Robinson, whose daughter, Carmon, a single parent, makes about $10 an hour. "That's tough."
A tough job market has prompted some children to return home.
Ricky Harris, 26, has been living with his parents in Denver since he graduated from George Washington University Law School in May.
"It's really tough," Harris said. "I didn't think I would be living at home as long as I had been."
His mother gives him $300 a month for spending. He helps out by running errands, such as grocery shopping, picking up the dry cleaning or taking her dog to the vet.
"It's not bad," said his mother, Susie Johnston. "The only problem is he's kind of messy. I just shut his door."
Some young adults move back home to live rent-free while attending graduate school or building up a down payment on a house. Others return because their parents can provide a higher standard of living than they can afford on their entry level salaries, experts said.
Sometimes it's more than economics.
Carmon Robinson -- who dropped out of high school as a junior, later married and divorced, and has two children -- returned three times between the ages of 19 and 28, each stay lasting several months. Recovery from a head injury as well as money problems led her to come home, she said.
"We provided her a place to live and took care of her," said her father, Les Robinson, 60, an engineer.
She figures that her parents spent well into the six figures helping her get on her feet. The investment appears to be paying off: The 34-year-old Laurel resident says she likes her job as a hotel manager-on-duty and plans to take hotel management classes this summer.
And as a gift to her father last Christmas, she presented him with her high school equivalency diploma.
"She brought it to me. We had been trying to encourage her to do it for years," said Les Robinson, who gets teary-eyed when he talks about it. "I'd given up on it."
Men tend to come home more often than women, partly because women tend to marry earlier, experts say. Another theory is that less is expected of a son in terms of household chores and emotional support than of a daughter.
"Mom is there to take care of him. ... He's got a good thing going," said Janet Bodnar, author of Dollars & Sense for Kids.
While it's natural for parents to want to help their adult children, there's a risk that they will never learn to stand on their own.
Parents who overindulge young children often can't stop after the child is an adult, said Bacci, the Linthicum financial planner.
One of Bacci's clients lost her job more than a year ago and is rapidly depleting her retirement account because she continues to pay the mortgage on her 30-year-old daughter's Federal Hill home.
"What starts out as a Ken and Barbie set becomes the house in Federal Hill," Bacci said.
Sometimes parents have an unspoken motive for opening their doors, figuring that the adult child will return the favor when they are elderly and need assistance, Bacci said. It often doesn't work out that way, he said.
"It's like that old Harry Chapin song 'Cat's in the Cradle,'" Bacci said. "Sorry, Dad, kids with the flu, got a lot to do, great hearing from you, call me in six months."
Ground rules need to be set once a child moves back home, experts say. This is good for both sides.
"When rules are not discussed, it usually doesn't go as well," said Kris Bronson, a psychologist with the Brandywine Center in Wilmington, Del. "The situation is ripe for misunderstanding, resentment, miscommunications, or one or the other feeling taken advantage of.
"Think about it like you would a roommate."
"Charging them rent is the most important thing," Klima said. "Even if the parents don't need the money. The point is to develop responsibility."
Added Bacci: "I've found that when parents do charge rent, it becomes more of a temporary situation."
Tips for parents
Here's some advice for parents with adult children returning home to live:
Discuss how long the child will stay.
Be as specific as possible on the details of the arrangement. For example, can the child have overnight guests? Will there be a curfew? If children return home with their own children, will grandparents be expected to baby-sit and under what terms?
Charge rent, a tough step for many parents.
Determine who pays what bills.