After decades of raising kids, the day parents finally watch them fly the coop can bring about feelings of depression and loss, often called “empty nest syndrome.” But this new phase in life can also be cause for celebration, giving parents the freedom to pursue a passion, change careers or luxuriate in new found leisure time.

When Cheryl Pierson’s youngest child went off to college, she decided to dedicate herself to a passion she had shelved many years earlier. “I always wanted to be a writer, but my parents discouraged it because they didn’t think I could earn a living from it,” she said. Five years after taking the plunge into writing, Pierson is on the verge of publishing her seventh novel and has co-founded a publishing company, Prairie Rose Publications.

The key to successfully taking advantage of the life changes resulting from an empty nest is two-fold: a positive attitude and advance financial planning.

Planning for the Financial Bumps in the Road
Without proper financial planning, parents may find that either they’re short on funding for the new phase in their lives or they can’t get out from under the weight of child-related expenses, especially if they have kids in college.

Pierson said she and her husband are surprised by how high their expenses are at this stage in their lives. “College is so expensive compared to what it was even 15 or 20 years ago,” she said. “You think you’ll be rich when they get out of diapers and formula, but then there’s karate, braces, car payments, medical bills and, finally, student loans,” she added. “Probably at this point, my husband and I are deeper in the financial hole than we were when they were little.”

Having kids in college can be the most expensive time of life for many couples. But those who set up a plan to systematically save 20 to 25 percent of their salaries over the duration of their careers will be better prepared for all of their long-term goals, including college costs. As in most cases of financial security planning, there is no substitute for systematic, disciplined savings.

Nicholas DeFilippis, a doctor who is putting his only daughter through medical school, said saving for the long haul was just part of his DNA. “I was always a good saver, even as a young boy with a paper route.”

While he said it’s easier to plan financially with only one child, it must begin early and be consistent. “It should be a number one priority, like exercise,” he said. “You have to make a commitment.”

It’s important for parents who are nearly done with paying for kids to take the time to reflect on what’s next. Most likely, retirement is looming. This is a good time to refocus on your goals and to step away from the financial noise and dream. Now you’re getting ready for the longest vacation of your life, and you’ll need to be creating a paycheck out of your assets.

Once the vision for the next phase of life starts to come into focus, the second piece of the plan is realigning assets and income resources toward that goal. If you had three kids in college, you could have been paying for six, eight or even twelve years of college education. Now you can dedicate those dollars toward financial independence.

DeFilippis said when his daughter graduates from medical school in a year and a sizable chunk of cash becomes available, he sees opportunity and a little more freedom. “Maybe I’ll use it to start slowing down at work,” he said. “It will afford me choices.”

Untying the Emotional Strings
With most parents, it’s not just the financial ties that bind. A mix of emotions accompanies watching a child embark on an adult life.

For Pierson, whose daughter and son left home within a few years of each other, emptying the nest was a two-step process. The first step, watching her daughter drive away for college, was the hardest, but a long-standing gag between the two of them eased the transition.

“When she was about three years old, she wanted this horrible rubber snake, and I bought it for her,” she said. “As time went by, she would hide it under my pillow or in the dirty clothes bin, and it got to be something we’d do back and forth. As she was pulling away from the house on her way to college, she rolled down the car window and yelled, ‘Look in your bedroom.’ Well, I went up there and sat on the bed for a while, and I felt the snake under my pillow—and I just laughed.”

Watching her son take off for college was easier, and by then Pierson knew she wanted to attempt a new career. “I took that time to throw myself into writing full time, and thank goodness I could do that because I didn’t have to work. Once I finally got my husband to realize where the peanut butter is, my partner and I started a publishing company.”

DeFilippis said the transition to an empty nest is just another bump in the road of life. “There are always stresses in life; it’s how you deal with them that matters.” Too many people wait for things to happen rather than planning ahead, he added. “The key to a lot of things—retirement, college planning or anything else—is perseverance and consistency.”

Written by Judy Martel. Originally published as part of Northwestern MutualVoice on