My Mom Is Broke. How Can I Help Her?

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Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

Mathilda, 30, is a nurse practitioner who lives in Queens and is worried about her mom’s finances. Her parents got divorced when she was in high school, and her dad isn’t really in the picture; as far as Mathilda knows, her mom doesn’t have a 401(k), and she stopped working full-time after Mathilda was born (she has three kids total, including 21-year-old twins). She’s now 64 and has a part-time job as a receptionist at a local medical office; she frequently makes comments about how she can’t afford to retire. Recently, she asked Mathilda if she could borrow a few hundred dollars for a new couch — a relatively minor request, but one that makes Mathilda nervous. She doesn’t want to pry, but she would like to know exactly what kind of financial shape her mom is in, and whether she needs to factor it into her own plans. A couch is one thing, but will Mathilda be supporting her mom eventually?

Mathilda has always been frugal, and she’s still paying off her college and grad-school loans. Still, she’s hoping to start saving up to buy an apartment with her husband, and they’re talking about having kids soon. How — and how much — should they factor her mom into their future? Should they plan for her to be their third roommate? Can she help her mom turn things around before it’s too late? How should she even bring it up?

Your mom’s circumstances are depressingly normal. Many women in her age bracket haven’t saved enough for retirement (if they’ve been able to save at all). They’re less likely to have built-in safety nets like pension plans that previous generations could fall back on. And the cruel irony is that they need more money just to exist — they live longer and have higher health-care costs than our dads. That’s what leads to this bummer of a statistic: Women over 65 are 80 percent more likely to be living in poverty than men. That’s a lot of moms.

You don’t want your mom to be destitute, obviously. At the very least, you want her to have the couch she asked for, and the ability to retire so that she can take lots of naps on it. But you also want those things for yourself, and you can’t bank on your own hypothetical children bailing you out in some imaginary future. This is where you have to toe the line: Help support your mom, or look after your own interests to make sure you don’t wind up in her shoes someday? It’ll be nearly impossible to do both.

Having the foresight to sniff around your mom’s finances while she’s in her early 60s (and working — thank goodness) does give you a leg up. “For better or for worse, people usually don’t begin worrying about mom until she’s in her 70s and 80s,” explains Sallie Krawcheck the founder and CEO of Ellevest, an online investment platform that caters specifically to women. “We all tend to assume that everything’s okay, until it’s too late.” She chalks this up to garden-variety avoidance and deeply ingrained familial patterns. “How comfortable do you feel saying to your parents, ‘Are y’all saving enough?’ Probably not at all,” she says. “You wouldn’t presume to question them like that, because they’re your parents! Still, it should be done.”

How to broach the topic in the calmest, least weird way? “You say, ‘Let’s have a family money talk. How do you feel about that?’ And then schedule it: Pick a date and outline the subjects in advance,” says Krawcheck. “Remember, this means you need to be willing to talk about your finances, too. It’s a two-way street.”

On an objective level, your goal for these discussions — which will be ongoing — is to help your mom come to terms with her retirement plan (or lack thereof) so that she can make up for lost time as effectively as possible. “There comes a point when it’s too late for a full retirement on the Bahamas island that you were hoping for, but if you can talk your mom into saving more, downsizing into a smaller home, and putting some of her money into low-risk investments, that will help,” says Krawcheck.

On a messier, more human level — the one where people hate talking about money, planning for old age is terrifying, and your mom is the same woman who gave you an allowance and doesn’t want you bossing around her budget — your goal isn’t quite so linear. “In theory, by your early 30s, you can reformulate your relationship with your mother so that she respects you as an independent adult, and vice versa,” says Maggie Baker, a psychologist, financial therapist, and author of Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It. “Of course, most people can’t do that, because the echoes of childhood are imprinted so strongly. But just because you love your mother doesn’t mean you have to return the favor of being cared for, especially if that involves sacrificing things from your own life — like, say, raising a child of your own the way you want — to make sure she’s comfortable in her old age.”

Reversing caretaker roles with one’s parents is one of the most difficult parts of being an adult, but it is possible to go about it with minimal door-slamming, icy silences, and general angst. “When you talk about money, everyone’s going to be on edge,” says Baker. “Sit down with a lot of time so that no one is rushed. Also, you want to respect your mom’s autonomy. You never want to say, ‘You need to hear my concerns.’ You ask, ‘Are you willing to listen to my concerns?’ And if she says no, you can say, ‘Are you willing to think about the fact that I’m concerned, and then meet again, or at least tell me why you don’t want to talk about it?’ That approach gives people room to breathe when it comes to getting started with a difficult subject.” Use your best judgment when it comes to involving your spouse and/or siblings at first — they’ll need to chime in eventually, but if your mom might feel less awkward talking to you solo, kick it off one-on-one.

In the meantime, you might as well warm up to the idea that she might shack up with you someday. For my friend Lily, who runs a small business in Massachusetts with her husband, this is an unspoken plan. “My mom is 65, single, and she’s a waitress,” Lily says. “My husband and I talk about what’s going to happen with her all the time. It’s been part of our relationship almost from the beginning — sort of like when you marry someone who has kids already. You have to know what dependents will be involved.”

As Lily puts it, her mom’s retirement math is “sketchy at best,” and she’s dreading the fallout: “My mom will move in with us at some point,” she says. “She doesn’t want to admit it, and we haven’t talked about it, but I don’t think she’ll have a choice. She lives in a rental apartment, and she’ll stop working eventually, and then she won’t be able to pay for it anymore, and I’m not in a position to pay for it either. By then, I might have kids, so I’m hoping I could use the grandchildren as bait, but it still won’t be easy to get her to throw in the towel.”

It’s a straightforward scenario, but it’s certainly not anyone’s first choice. “Occasionally, my mom will drop hints about these retirement communities for artists, and I’m like, Does she really think I could afford that for her? Doesn’t she know she’s going to be living in our basement?” says Lily. Meanwhile, her husband isn’t thrilled about the arrangement, either. “My mom and my husband say they get along, but I know they’re not very comfortable around each other,” she says. “He’s come to the realization that she’s going to live with us. But it’s frightening to think about when it will happen, and how those conversations will go.”

In your case, Mathilda, jump-starting those conversations before matters become dire will ease the pressure on you as well as your mom. While her casual request for couch money was, as Baker puts it, “not a good sign about her situation,” it’s also an opportunity. She has cracked open the door for you to register concern.

And while you’re at it, don’t extend her the money as a loan. “Family, friends, and lending money do not mix,” says Krawcheck. “I have tried it, and there’s zero good that comes out of it.” Instead, she recommends giving your mom the money — and only if you can genuinely afford it. “The only way it works is to consider the money a gift. You have to never want to see it again, and be willing to give it happily and joyfully.”

If your mom’s couch money will tighten your belt, then tell her so. “Your first responsibility is to yourself, and to your new family,” says Baker. Still, she’s your mom, and guilt can be powerful. If it’s keeping you up at night, Baker suggests opening a “mom fund” — an account where you deposit a modest amount (say, $25) every month. “That will be your contribution to your mom’s well-being as she gets older,” she says. “It’s very concrete, it shows compassion and care, it’s not extreme, and it could grow over time. Consider it your conscience fund.”

My Mom Is Broke. How Can I Help Her?