59% Of Boomer Moms Pay For Their Adult Child's Cell Phone -- And That's Not All

For many years, marketers have treated Moms as increasingly irrelevant as their children grew older. Believing that children start asserting their own preferences and controlling their own purchase decisions, brands also assume they can ignore these children’s mothers. Some recent research proves both assumptions wrong. 

She’s still paying the bills

We recently asked the Boomer women we gather what expenses they were paying for their adult children, and here’s what they told us:

  • 59% are paying for the adult child’s cell phone (a percentage that doesn’t decline as the child reaches age 30). 
  • 53% are paying for insurance.
  • 39% are paying their adult child’s rent – the price of an empty nest!
  • 38% are paying for travel (and this does not include travel to and from school).
  • 36% are paying for clothing.
  • 33% are paying for cars and computers.
  • 24% are paying for home furnishings.



These numbers illustrate some stark facts about the recession, but also some dramatic facts about the changing relationships between Boomer parents and their Millennial/Gen Y children. Eighty-four percent of respondents told us that they are paying for more of their adult child’s expenses than their parents paid for them. And almost 50% are paying more than $5,000 in annual expenses for their adult children, separate from education expenses/tuition.

If she’s not buying, she’s influencing what the Millennial child is buying

Gen X and Boomer marketers assume that target consumers are like them, and most of them would have died before asking their mothers for advice after turning 20. It is a different world for Millennial/Gen Y adults who perceive little or none of the generation gap that burdened older consumers. While that generation gap has generally disappeared, marketers have yet to notice that 20-something daughters and their 50-something mothers are both proud to be each other’s best friend.

Like any best friend, the Boomer mom (Rose Cameron of Euro RSCG calls her the “Untapped Solvent Advisor”) told us that she is regularly consulted by her adult children for advice on the following purchase decisions:

  • Financial services (42%)
  • Insurance (40%)
  • Cars (39%)
  • Food and recipes (34%) - 20-somethings in the supermarket are more likely to call mom for advice than their friends.
  • Appliances (31%)
  • And 14% even ask their Boomer moms for advice about technology!

What does this mean for marketers?

While Boomer mothers are paying directly for so many expenses for their adult children, or explicitly influencing what brand they buy, almost no brands or retailers are talking to these women, either for their own shopping dollars or those they spend on their adult children’s behalf.

Here’s what some of them could be doing:

  • Cell phone providers should market a family plan that meets this Boomer Mom’s multigenerational needs
  • Travel companies should speak to the interests of the parents who plan ahead, spend more, and actually want to take their adult children on their trips
  • Car companies, which generally ignore the Boomer women who buy more (and more expensive) cars after age 50 than before, should talk directly to Boomer moms who are buying cars for their 20-something kids

This list could go on and on, but if marketers, brands and retailers ever needed an additional reason to engage the “Graduate Mom” with kids between the ages of 18 and 30, they’ve got it now: Win this Boomer woman’s business, and she’ll bring her adult children along with her.

4 comments about "59% Of Boomer Moms Pay For Their Adult Child's Cell Phone -- And That's Not All ".
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  1. Kara Jenkins from Luminosity Marketing, November 17, 2011 at 10:19 a.m.

    It is very interesting how the recession has affected so many consumers in different ways and is now forcing marketers to look at these consumers in new ways. We recently did a two-part study looking at boomerang consumers and how their purchasing habits are changing because they are moving back home with their parents. You can read these two studies here:

    Boomerang I:

    Boomerang II:

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 17, 2011 at 10:24 a.m.

    There is an audience in the making here: Boomer kids who will have to take in/pay for boomer parents who are spending their money on them and will need to find a way to support them. They so need an education in personal economics. All that money their parents are not saving for themselves can quadruple what they will need. A big whomp factor is coming.

  3. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group, November 17, 2011 at 11:09 a.m.

    I'm skeptical. For one thing, the actual question looks like it says "I am paying for all *or part of* my adult child's expenses for . . ." So saying these parents are paying their child's cell phone bill (or whatever) is a little misleading. Unless you read the research in detail and it's not asking about the occasional cash gift that's used toward all this stuff.

    For another, the link you provide shows the questions being asked about children age 18-30 -- not broken down by the child's age. There's a huge difference between a kid in college and a 28-year-old. Again, unless you read the full research and know something that's not on the linked page.

    For a third, the page you link to doesn't say how many people were surveyed or what the margin of error is. It seems these numbers are very high -- and it's pretty easy to do poor research with a skewed list of "vibrant moms." Especially when you have a stake in proving that women 50+ are making a lot of financial decisions for other people in their lives.

  4. Stephen Reily from IMC/Vibrant Nation, November 18, 2011 at 6:58 a.m.

    Thanks for the good, skeptical questions, Carolyn. In reverse order

    - we did ask questions specific to age groups within the 18-30 range (18-21, 22-25 and 26-30) and, remarkably, the cell-phone percentages remained consistent and consistently high for each group. That was a big surprise to us, but consistent with what we're seeing elsewhere about boomerang kids, unemployment among 20-somethings, etc.

    - you are correct that the positive responses could have referred to a mother "helping" with the child's own cell phone bill, but given that it's usually cheaper to keep the child on the family plan than to have them assume their own plan, I don't think this represented a big part of the answer.

    And, this was a survey held at our site and has a fairly wide margin of error - yet even applying such a margin still suggests that mothers are playing a far larger role in making purchases (and purchases decisions) for their adult children, and one that marketers should pay some attention to.

    Finally, start asking 20-somethings in your office and elsewhere about this and see what you find out. Anecdotally, what I've been hearing confirms that a giant percentage of them are still on their parents' cell plans, even if they're employed and even if they're married. Whatever the exact percentage, it's more than any of us suspected.


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