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The sandwich generation: Definition, challenges & coping strategies

Multi generational family relaxing on weekend in living modern room
10'000 Hours/Getty Images

If you have growing children and aging parents, and you're caring for both, it can be a challenging situation. Even with help and a solid support system, you can feel emotionally taxed. You are part of a growing population of adults in the same situation—often referred to as the "sandwich generation"—and you're not alone. But what is the sandwich generation dealing with financially and emotionally?

What is the sandwich generation?

The aptly named "sandwich generation" comprises individuals who are both raising their children and caring for aging parents. People in the sandwich generation often juggle the responsibilities of work, home and personal lives, and are looking after not just themselves but their kids and their parents. All of these are vying for big chunks of their attention.

5 challenges faced by the sandwich generation

If you fall into in the sandwich generation, you may be experiencing some of these six common challenges:

1. Balancing competing priorities

One of the biggest challenges is managing all the tasks stacked up for you. You may be trying to work steady hours and build your career, but you also need to run errands for your parents and taxi your children from school to their activities. It often can feel like there's just not enough time in the day, much less any time for yourself.

2. Increasing responsibility

Another challenge is a mounting sense of responsibility. Not only do you have the pressure of raising your kids, but your parents may become unable to care for themselves. Some members of the sandwich generation are managing the care-taking for three generations.

According to Pew Research,"Parents who are multi-generational caregivers ... spend just over an hour a day performing adult care." This is in addition to taking care of their own children. When you're caring for so many people, it can become "normal" to feel a constant sense of guilt.

You may feel like you're unable to give your parents the level of care they need. Or you might worry you're not giving your children the same depth of attention as you would if you didn't have elderly parents to care for. You may even think you shouldn't take time for yourself because there are too many other things to do.

3. Inadequate retirement savings

The sandwich generation's biggest hurdle might be feeling secure about their preparation for retirement. With rising health care costs and the cost of living in general, it can feel insurmountable that you'll save enough money to comfortably retire. This is especially true if you are taking care of parents who themselves lack the retirement resources to cover their needs. And, due to so many financial responsibilities, you might not have as much disposable income as you'd like to contribute to your own future.

5. Difficulty meeting savings goals

On top of your own individual short- and long-term financial goals, you're also pulled to save for your children's and your parents' potential futures. The cost of college tuition has been rising steadily for years, and it shows no signs of slowing down. You may find yourself in the difficult position of saving for college while also making financial decisions based on the care your parents may need. This can be a huge financial burden as well as an emotional one.

6. Looming personal debt

Another challenge you may be facing is your own debt. Experian data shows Gen Xers have an average of $157,556 in debt while baby boomers owe an average of $94,880. This can make it difficult to save for retirement or meet other financial goals. The crunch can feel especially hard if you're taking time away from work to care for a child or parent.

Illustration of hand making a move in game Checkers

Overwhelmed by debt?

When you're ready to get serious about getting out of debt, it can be liberating and empowering. That said, it does require getting organized first. Here are some strategic steps to get out of debt.

See the 7 steps to take

How the sandwich generation can navigate financial challenges

It's simply not easy to be squished in the middle of all these demands. But you may be able to take certain steps so your situation feels more manageable. Here are some suggestions to consider that can help you thrive from within the sandwich generation:

Prioritize long-term financial goals

Even if you're already stretched thin, it's crucial to ensure that you and your loved ones are taken care of financially in the future. Start by creating a budget, and make sure to include savings for retirement and other long-term goals. One simple way to get the ball rolling is to participate in employer-sponsored retirement plans. If you have debt, make a plan to pay it down. Put money into a savings account each month to have in case of emergency or just so you're prepared for the future.

Consider life insurance & disability insurance

At this point in your life, you have considerable responsibilities. But, nothing is guaranteed. In order to feel a sense of peace and, therefore, reduce stress, consider purchasing life insurance and disability insurance for yourself so that your loved ones will be taken care of financially if something happens to you.

Even if you are young and healthy, it's wise to have life insurance if other people are relying on you for your income. Similarly, disability insurance will provide financial assistance if you are unexpectedly hurt or become sick and can't work.

Have heart-to-heart conversations

It may help you manage the stress if you have regular real-talk check-ins with your parents and children. This will help them understand your situation and give them a chance to express their own concerns. Be sure to help them be realistic about what you can and cannot do.

For example, if your elderly parent needs help with household chores, explain that you can only do so much because you also have young children to care for. By being honest and open and making expectations clear, you can help reduce stress and avoid resentment.

Get more conversation tips to use with your aging parents

Involve your children in college planning

As your kids head into their teen years, consider looping them into the financial discussions about going to college. This will help them understand your financial limitations and be realistic about what you can pay for. It also can be a good bonding experience as you work together to plan for their future. Involving your children in college planning also can help to ease any guilt you may feel about not being able to fully support their education.

If your children are still young, don't forget to take advantage of tools like a 529 college savings plan that can be tax advantageous and help them pay for college in the future.

Consult with a financial advisor

With so many demands on your time and resources, it's important to have a clear financial plan. A financial advisor can help you create a budget, set aside money for retirement and find ways to save and invest that fit your individual situation. They will look at your overall financial picture and make recommendations on how you can best balance caring for your children and parents and more.

Make time for yourself and seek support

It's easy to get so caught up in taking care of others that you forget to take care of yourself. But if you're not taking care of your own needs, you won't be able to take care of anyone else. Make sure to schedule some time each week for activities that make you happy.

Having so many caretaking duties also can be isolating, so it's important to seek out supportive relationships. Join a group and meet other people in similar situations. Talking to others who understand what you're going through can help you feel less alone and more equipped to handle whatever challenges come your way.

gold line

Being in the sandwich generation has its rewards

While being a member of the sandwich generation can be a difficult position to be in, it also can be an incredibly rewarding one. When you're struggling, just remember that you're the glue that holds your family together. You're providing an invaluable service to both your children and your parents, and it will pay off in the long run.

If you are a part of the sandwich generation, know that you're not alone. There are ways to manage the stress as long as you're willing to reach out for help and support.

Thrivent and its financial advisors and professionals do not provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Consult your attorney or tax professional.

If requested, a licensed insurance agent/producer may contact you and financial solutions, including insurance, may be solicited.

A 529 College Savings Plan is offered through a brokerage arrangement with Thrivent Investment Management Inc. and are not guaranteed or insured by the FDIC and may lose value. Consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses associated before investing. Read the issuers official statement carefully for additional information before investing. Investigate possible state tax benefits that may be available based on the state sponsor of the plan, the residency of the account owner, and the account beneficiary. Consult with a tax professional to analyze all tax implications prior to investing.