Tae and Monica Kim began their marriage with over $100,000 dollars in student debt.
It’s an albatross around the necks of many young Americans: how to pay down debt, create savings, afford to start a family — childcare, food, clothing — and own a house?
“We couldn’t afford a house,” says Tae, who works as a financial blogger. “We couldn’t afford childcare. It kind of felt like you got one or the other.”
A decade after beginning their life together, however, the Kims have two children, a Golden State home of their own, and no more debt. They cleared the ledger in just three and a half years.
The key for them was to not be beholden to the classic vision of the American Dream — strike out on your own, find a home, begin a family — and to instead find and live their version of the American Dream.
And what does that dream look like?
“I’m a 40-year-old guy living with my mom,” Tae laughs.
The Kims live with Tae’s parents, an arrangement that allowed them to keep both of their careers, put them in a house of their own, and provided access to childcare. Financial burdens were lessened, and social support was built in.
Such multigenerational living arrangements have been on the rise in the U.S. for years.
According to the Pew Research Center, multigenerational living in America hit its low point in 1980, with only 12% of the population living in multigenerational households. Since then Americans have been moving back in with their parents. The number rose to 20% — 65 million people — by 2016.
The rates rose across racial, ethnic, and gender lines, Pew found. And the trend has only continued. In 2020, it’s estimated that one in six American adults lived with members of their extended family.
The benefits of these living arrangements seem to be gaining wider recognition. Even tech companies are now getting in on the action. In Boston, the platform Nesterly matches older homeowners who have extra rooms with younger renters.
Although multigenerational living is on the upswing, the idea is far from new. As recently as the 1950s, over 20% of Americans lived with their extended family. The arrangement was even more common before that. And among certain cultures — for example in the Navajo Nation — multigenerational households have long been the norm.
The benefits of living with parents
Tae’s father grew up in South Korea, where multigenerational living is much more common.
“So, for my, for my dad, he didn’t think it was anything abnormal,” Tae says. “He saw our situation and he asked us, ‘Hey, like, have you thought about what you guys are gonna do with childcare?’”
Tae’s parents had already paid the down payment on their home, but the cost of maintaining the house was high. His father’s solution? Merge families.
“He said, ‘you guys can have the house, just, we get to come with the house — forever,’” Tae laughs. “In perpetuity.”
The financial benefits of multigenerational living are obvious: You’re not paying two sets of utility bills or mortgages, and you can split the cost of other shared expenses like groceries.
Another crucial benefit goes beyond saving money (although it certainly saves a lot of it): access to free, trusted child care.
With Tae’s parents watching the children, Tae and Monica were able to continue working in their careers. They managed to live on one of their salaries and dedicate the other to paying down their debts.
Having Tae’s parents deeply involved in the children’s lives also spoke to something deeper for Monica, who had spent a lot of time with her own grandmother when she was young and her parents were working full time.
“I feel like with grandparents, they give you … a different type of love, kind of an unconditional love in a way,” Monica says.
The challenges of living with parents
These financial and emotional benefits do come with costs of their own.
“For both my parents and I, we could have lived independently, but with more limitations,” he says. “But then, when we started living together, it opened up some of those limitations. It opened up more options.
“What it comes down to is there are trade-offs in order to gain the benefit.”
It’s easy to imagine some of the tradeoffs of a multigenerational household.
There can be a lack of privacy and the kinds of interruptions that happen anytime one shares their home with someone else. Differing views on how to raise children can have a sharper edge when your roommates are your family.
“To be honest, we’ve had countless times where we’re actually looking for apartments or homes,” Tae says.
There is, as well, the pressure to live up to that “normal” American Dream: the hero’s journey, from parent’s place to your own, from single to spouse to your own family. It can be a vision difficult to shake; a cultural construct turned cultural constriction.
“I think there’s also a stigma towards a multi-generational household, that it’s something that we are embarrassed about,” Tae says. “Like, hey, if I’m living with my mom, a lot of times it’s because I don’t have a choice in it.”
But families who live together can help each other, too.
“Monica and I, the way we define the American Dream is the freedom and the flexibility to be able to pursue our version of what [that] dream is.”
And for the Kims — and millions of others — that dream looks like living with mom and dad.