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I grew up in an upper-middle-class family where money was never talked about. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mom is notoriously bad with money; my dad passed away in my early teens, and she blew through his entire life-insurance policy by the time I graduated from high school. I’m now 26, married, and have a corporate job that I love. My husband and I paid for our wedding last year by ourselves and we’re working hard to pay off our student loans, build an emergency fund, and save for the future. Meanwhile, my mom is in her late 60s and still managing her own business, which requires a lot of physical labor that is starting to take a toll on her. Recently, she began making comments about how my husband and I are her “retirement plan,” and that investing in long-term-care insurance, etc., is unnecessary because she has us.
This is incredibly frustrating, as I have other siblings who aren’t expected to bear her financial burdens, and my mom continues to spend her money irresponsibly (in my opinion) on trips, fancy restaurants, clothing, and so forth. I know she has absolutely no savings, and I don’t think it’s fair for her to rely on me. How can I address this? Is there anything I should be doing? I am lucky that my husband and I are able to have open conversations about our finances, and he thinks we should talk to my mom — but I don’t even know where to start.
Your letter reminded me of a woman I once met at a barbecue at my in-laws’ house. A neighbor in their quiet suburb, she was about the same age as your mom, and also a widow. Within 30 seconds of parking her sandwich next to mine, she launched into a tedious line of questioning about children — namely, when I was going to have some and what the holdup was. She also recommended cutting back to part-time work while raising a family; she had left the workforce entirely when she had kids. Desperate to change the subject, I asked how long she’d lived nearby. Her face fell. After 20 years, she was selling her house — and not by choice. “I have an ungrateful son, and he’s making me downsize,” she said. “He won’t support his own mother.” For a terrible moment, I thought she was going to cry.
I’ve since wondered what that woman had expected of her son, and why her disappointment in him was so visceral. Who was to blame for her not getting the retirement she’d envisioned? And would she spend the rest of her life being upset about it? Obviously, you don’t want your mom to be in this position, nor do you want her complaining about you to strangers at barbecues. Thus, your challenge is twofold: How do you convince your mom that you are, in fact, not her retirement plan, and maintain a good relationship with her as you do so?
To be fair to both your mom and the barbecue lady, economic headwinds have not been in their favor. Some depressing statistics: Women older than 65 are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as men of the same age, particularly if they’re widows, and about half of them qualify as “economically insecure.” Even worse, those numbers seem to be going in the wrong direction, as baby-boomers age out of the workforce without adequate savings. Our generation will probably wind up footing the bills for our aging parents — particularly our mothers — much more than we (or they) expected.
Which isn’t to say that you and your mom are powerless against these systemic problems. A good place to start: Ask her to sit down with a fee-only financial planner, who can charge by the hour to provide comprehensive advice (not to be confused with a “fee-based” adviser, who skims commissions off of product sales — not what your mom needs). You can find local options through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, here.
“I get a client like this — in really bad shape — about once or twice a year,” says Jennifer Murray, a certified financial planner with Stonebridge Financial Advisors who specializes in older women. “Often, that person comes to me at the behest of their child, so that I can have the hard conversation that the child would rather avoid. Introducing an honest naysayer — like me — can be very effective in helping someone realize what they need to do.” Her first steps would be to look over your mom’s expenses in detail and figure out where (and how) to cut back and save strategically. Then she’d help your mom draw up a budget and do the math on a retirement timeline, accounting for factors like Social Security. “If she’s in denial, I would just show her the numbers,” Murray says. “No one can argue with those.”
As a rule, Murray discourages clients from relying on their children —or anyone else, for that matter. “I explain to them that anything can happen. Children can get divorced, or disabled, or pass away. You truly can’t count on anyone but yourself,” she says. “If a client tells me, ‘My daughter will take care of me,’ I’ll say, ‘Your daughter sounds very responsible, but I’m sure she’s going to have a lot of other obligations too, and she may not be in a position to help you as much as you think.’” On a more optimistic note, Murray adds, most parents don’t actually want to be dependent on their children, and are relieved to hear about ways to avoid it.
That said, if your mom has been “bad with money” throughout her life, this process may be a heavy lift. “I would be very curious about your mom’s money history and how it has led to her current relationship with spending,” says Megan Ford, a licensed family therapist and past-president of the Financial Therapy Association. And this is where you can help: Talk to her about your own goals (paying off your loans by a certain year, etc.) and the lifestyle you’ve chosen to achieve them. Ask her about her own plans, even if they enrage you (“I’ll just move in with you when I run out of money!”), and try to make her feel heard. Fostering an open exchange will make her more at ease with financial transparency, says Ford. Think back to the barbecue lady: She felt shut out, abandoned, her needs ignored. Maybe the biggest difference between her and your mom’s future isn’t about money as much as empathy. How can you be supportive … in getting her to support herself?
Steven Zarit, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, researches relationships between adult children and their parents, and recently conducted a study about parental stubbornness. Why do parents tend to resist the well-meaning suggestions of their children so strongly? It’s because they want to maintain a sense of control over their own lives — which can be reinforced through thoughtful communication, Zarit says. His advice to someone in your shoes: “Do not pick arguments. Do not make a parent feel defensive. Plant an idea, step back, and bring it up later. Be patient.”
On a concrete level, it’s too late for your mom to truly “catch up.” For instance, she’s no longer a good candidate for long-term-care insurance, because the premiums for a woman in her late 60s would be too high to be worth it, according to Murray. (The ideal time to take out a long-term-care policy is in your 50s, so that ship has sailed.) Instead, your mom’s financial adviser will encourage her to put as much money as possible into retirement savings vehicles like an IRA — ideally the maximum annual amount ($6,500 for those over 50) —and sock away additional cash in low-risk investments.
Realistically, you may still wind up paying your mom’s bills someday. If it’ll give you peace of mind, you could quietly earmark a “mom” fund and start funneling whatever’s doable — say, $50 — into it each month. But you want her to respect your money, and if you’ll resent her for dining out now (literally) on your future dime, be honest with her. Also, start enlisting your siblings in the discussion. At the very least, it might inspire them to tighten up their own finances; ideally, it’ll get everyone on the same page about the hard numbers of your mom’s situation, and give you a support system of your own.
Your mom probably won’t be able to retire with the luxuries she’s accustomed to. However, your goal is to give her the comfort and satisfaction of knowing — perhaps for the first time in her life — that she’s independent, and that her children’s futures are that much more secure as a result.