My parents divorced shortly after I was born, and my mom has been single for most of her life. She’s now in her late 60s. A couple of years ago, after she retired, she met a man through her poker group. Now they’re spending tons of time together. I can’t tell if they are romantic partners (my mom is very tight-lipped about that stuff), but they travel together for poker games and go on long walks every day. All of this would be great except she’s also spending a lot of money on him. She has mentioned that he’s had financial troubles, so she’s helping him out with his housing costs (?!) and always pays their travel expenses. I think he’s a little younger than her, but not by a lot.
I love how happy my mom is right now. But when I recently went to visit, a friend of hers pulled me aside and told me that she’s concerned that this man is taking advantage of my mom. Apparently, he has done this before with another woman (whom he also met through poker). He’s very charming, and I can see how my mom would overlook the financial red flags. She’s not wealthy, but she does own her home and gets a pension from the teachers union. I’m worried that this man could seriously compromise her retirement savings.
I’m 32, married, and pregnant with my first child, and I’m not in a financial position to help my mom out if she runs out of money. We also don’t live close by (a few states away), so it’s hard for me to know what’s going on. How should I bring this up? Do I have any legal ability to step in if it turns out she’s being taken advantage of? What else can I do?
I truly believe that one of the best things a parent can do for their adult children is take care of themselves, financially and otherwise. (And the other way around — it’s a gift to your loved ones when they don’t need to worry about you.) That said, I’m sure your mom doesn’t think she’s creating a mess you might have to help her clean up one day. Convincing her to be careful about her friend will be tricky, especially given his many marks in the “pro” box. But there are several things you can try.
Before you launch into action, though, you’ll want to gather some information. First, know that you’re right to be protective of your mom. Older people are statistically more likely than other age groups to lose large amounts of money to scammers, according to a 2022 report from the Federal Trade Commission. “Elder fraud is much more common than it should be,” says Manisha Thakor, a certified financial planner. “It can range from being sold a bad investment to much more personal situations, like this one.”
The issue is, of course, that your mom’s relationship seems to fall into a gray area — Mr. Poker might not be defrauding her explicitly. Rather, he might be exploiting her desire for company by getting what he needs in return, as humans have done since the beginning of time. From what you’ve described, this arrangement isn’t breaking any laws.
The only way that you might be able to step in legally is if your mom is deemed incompetent to manage her own affairs (either due to mental incapacity or serious physical disability). But that doesn’t sound like the case. “If your mom is competent, she’s able to make her own decisions,” says Sonya Lutter, a certified financial planner and licensed therapist. “You might disagree with the decisions, but you cannot make her do anything else at this point.”
So your best course of action is to approach your mom with kindness and empathy. Your objective is for her to be transparent about how this relationship is affecting her finances so that you can encourage her to draw some boundaries; that will work only if she doesn’t feel judged or get defensive. Especially if things are already going sideways — she’s likely to be embarrassed about it and deny that anything is wrong. “No one likes to admit they potentially mishandled their finances,” says Thakor. “And layered on top is that as you age, you fear losing your independence and don’t want to be treated by your adult children as if you were now the child. So there’s a strong element of pride mixed in too.”
Give her the benefit of the doubt. Unless you’ve actually seen her financial records, you don’t know how much money she’s spent on this guy. He might be a great companion with some light financial baggage that she can easily help him with. Or he’s a swindling mooch who’s going to put her into debt and then dump her on your doorstep. Either way, your best chance of finding out — and intervening — is by showing her that you’re on her side.
Lutter recommends thinking about this process in steps. To start, you want to bring up her man friend in a gentle, neutral way that builds rapport and allows your mom to sing his praises. (“Tell me more about your friend. He seems great.”) Then listen carefully to your mom’s response.
“Once your mom can fully express the positive attributes of this person, she might be more willing to expand into other areas,” says Lutter. She’ll also be more likely to trust you with her concerns about him if she knows you understand all of the good things he has brought to her life.
Next, you want to invite some ambivalence. Try to do this in a way that relates to your mom; you don’t want her to feel criticized. Ideally, you can point to an example in your own life of when a friend surprised you and made you a little uncomfortable. Like, “I really know he makes you happy, but I did notice that he leans on you a lot financially. I’ve been in a similar position [blah, blah — insert example here], and it was difficult. How is that going?”
If she does open the door to a concern, you want to validate it. (“I hear what you’re saying. That’s hard.”) Be patient; it might take her a while to warm up to the idea that he’s crossed a line, and even then, it might take some time for her to act on it.
Still, there’s a possibility that she won’t want to acknowledge that this guy is trouble. “When you genuinely find enjoyment in the company of a particular person, it’s easy to feel like, Life’s short. What’s the point of money, if not to use it to make us happy?” says Thakor.
If that’s the case, you have another option: Offer to hire a neutral third party, also known as a certified financial planner. (If she already has one that she likes, even better! She may have access to one through a teachers union, and you can encourage her to make an appointment to “check in.”) “You want to tee up the conversation as ‘I want to put you in the driver’s seat.’ That helps her feel like she is not being attacked,” says Thakor.
Your mom doesn’t need someone to manage her money for the rest of her life; instead, you want to find a planner who charges by the hour (the Garrett Planning Network is a great place to look). They can take stock of what’s going on with your mom’s finances and do their job of telling her if her current habits (a.k.a. bankrolling the poker man) are going to shortchange her retirement.
Yes, a good financial planner costs money — a couple hundred dollars an hour for a few hours, which is nothing to sniff at (especially when you’re preparing for a baby). But in my opinion, paying for it is worth your peace of mind, and it’ll be a lot less than funding your mom’s life if she gets in over her head with this guy.
Best-case scenario: Your mom will listen to you (or a financial planner) and start to put her foot down with her new companion. Worst-case scenario: She’s an adult who continues to make mistakes that you can’t control, and you’ll have to make tougher decisions about how to help her (or not) down the line. None of this will be easy. But at least you’ll know that you’ve done what you could to care for her from the beginning, and that’s worth a lot.
The Cut’s financial-advice columnist, Charlotte Cowles, answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to email@example.com.