Question: My parents raised me right. I pay off my credit cards every month. I have no debt besides my mortgage. I follow financial experts like you. But here’s my problem. My parents are now in their 70s, and they’ve suddenly started spending all their money.
It’s mostly my dad. My mom has hinted she knows it’s a problem, but she won’t talk about it with him — or me. My dad talks about enjoying his “last few years,” even though he’s healthy and could live another 20. They now have $ 10,000 in credit card debt. I’m going to visit them at Christmas and want to discuss it, but I don’t know how. Any advice?
— Peter in Oklahoma
Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…
Last Christmas Eve, PBS aired a guide called, Your family’s political fights don’t have to ruin Christmas. I remember thinking, “Compared to personal finance, politics is a tame topic.”
In my two-plus decades advising Americans on their money, I’ve seen families ripped apart by problems just like yours, Peter. The holidays only make it worse. In fact, a poll by Ally Bank came out just recently that showed, “70 percent of Americans say they think it’s rude or inappropriate to discuss personal money matters in a social setting.”
That said, you can’t ignore this problem. If your parents run out of money, the burden often falls on the children to support them. This is especially difficult if you’re raising children of your own. It’s such a pervasive problem, there’s a name for it: sandwich generation.
What NOT to do
Before we discuss how to deftly tackle this topic, let’s review tactics that almost never work…
- Talking finances at the dinner table. Even if everyone agreed this was a good idea (and I’ve never heard of that), there simply isn’t enough time between bites to have a detailed conversation.
- Lecturing and scolding. This isn’t adversarial. to really solve the problem, everyone needs to work together.
- Bringing up the topic out of the blue. It might seem easier to “wait for the right moment” and spring the discussion on your parents, but even if they don’t feel attacked, they won’t be prepared.
There’s a better way.
What to do
It’s quite common for one spouse to be more frugal than the other. While your mother is reluctant to discuss the problem openly, she’s at least hinted her awareness of it. Call your mother before you arrive and tell her you will have this conversation with your father — and you’d appreciate her advice on how to proceed.
Framed this way, your mother should reveal information that can help you. Has your father recently faced a health scare that’s convinced him to throw caution and cash to the wind? Has a close friend recently died? Financial experts like me know we often have to be psychological experts, too.
Ask your mother for the best time to broach the topic with your father. First, you want to give him fair warning and ease into the discussion. Ask to talk privately, and tell him how you appreciate everything you have as an adult and realize much of that is because, as you said, he “raised me right.”
Then tell him you’d like to sit down with him and your mother to solve the problem together. Make it a “we thing.” Realize your father may get upset and even accusatory. Don’t react in kind. Keep saying “we.”
Finally, don’t expect immediate results. Very seldom will the conversation end with, “Thanks, son, I agree with you and will change my ways tomorrow.”
Instead, drop the topic for the rest of your visit. Near the end, gently ask if your father if he’s given any more thought to the topic. If he’s still reluctant, go back to your mother and suggest she consider credit counseling for herself first — because her husband’s debts are hers. She can call one of our certified credit counselors at 1-800-810-0989 for a free debt analysis.
If you’ve calmly laid the groundwork, your mother can go to your father with the advice of an outside expert. I’ve seen that be just enough to tip the scales. Whatever you do, Peter, don’t give up on your parents. They didn’t give up on you. Like they did raising you, keep at it.
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