Reader Mail: My Father’s Finances

Dear Mike,

My father turns 70 this year. He’s lived a fantastic, globe-trotting life as a journalist, but his freelancing gigs dried up about a decade ago and now he’s living off Social Security and some meager savings with old medical bills to pay. He’s very private about finances, so I’m not exactly sure what his situation is, but I am pretty sure he is right on the line of being able to support himself. He lives alone, and is friendly, but somewhat distant from our extended family. (I am his only child.)

I’m 24, and I just got my first real job, making enough ($33K) to pay the rent, put a little in savings, make student loan payments, and still have a tiny bit left over. I would like to divert 10 percent of my paycheck to his bank account, which would pay for a month’s gas or groceries, but I don’t know if he would accept that. Do you have any advice for how to approach that conversation? Is there another way that I can ensure, from seven hundred miles away, that my dad doesn’t have to eat cat food? And finally, what would be a rad (but useful) 70th birthday present for a very non-traditional, non-suburban man? — H.S.

“I am worried about mom and dad.”

With those seven words, I started a conversation with my brother about what we would need to do to ensure that my parents would have enough money to live a normal life when they reached the retirement age in a few years. I had been feeling troubled about my parents’ finances after my mother disclosed to me about the amount of money they had saved in their 401(k) plans, which was not very much. My father was retiring in just a few years, and my mother wasn’t too far behind. Would they have enough to pay the bills? Would they be forced to sell their house?

We started this website because people have a tendency to be really guarded about money, and for no good reason other than they feel the need to keep their money matters private. Talking about money can be difficult, and getting people to open up about it is hard at first, but the more I’ve done it, the easier it’s been. I can’t go anywhere these days without someone starting a conversation about money with me.

It was hard to talk about money with my parents at first, too. And when they did start telling me about their finances, they started out slow, and I didn’t get a full picture of their finances until I kept at it over the course of a year. By then, I had not only learned the exact amount of money they had in their retirement accounts, I had their credit card balances, what was left on their mortgage, and what they had to pay to keep the lights on. With this knowledge on hand, I had a better understanding of what I needed to do to plan for their futures.

Here’s what you should do to start a conversation with your dad about his finances: Don’t start out by asking him if he’s having money problems. That may cause him to clam up and say the thing parents like to tell their children which is, “I’m doing okay, just make sure to take care of yourself.” Most parents don’t want to be a burden to their children—they want their children cared for.

So let your dad continue to be your dad. Tell him you’ve been thinking about your finances, and that you wanted to have some sort of emergency plan in place for yourself in case you ever lost your income. Ask him what sort of emergency plans he has in place for himself. Hopefully, he won’t lie to you, but you may instantly get the sense that he’s doing fine on his own, or you may be troubled, like I was, that he won’t be able to sustain himself for an extended period of time.

Ask your father what you’re supposed to do if something ever happened to him. You are his only child, so it makes sense for you to be worried about this sort of thing. Ask him if there is any paperwork you’ll need access to (life insurance policies, a will, etc.) The more you get the ball rolling on this money discussion, the easier it will be for him to open up to you about his finances. If he’s anything like my parents, you won’t learn everything at once, but at least you’ll start learning something.

I hope it turns out that his financial situation isn’t as dire as you think it might be. I hope you won’t have to divert any money you’re earning now to pay for your father, though as someone who sends home money to his parents, I understand why you would want to do that. Your father is lucky to have a child who cares so much about him.

As for a birthday gift for a father turning 70—write him 70 notes telling him 70 different ways you love him. Put together 70 of the stories you love most that your father has written into a book. He lives 700 miles away. Buy a plane ticket and tell him you love him in person. That will probably be the best gift of all.


Previous Columns

Photo: Shutterstock/Dubova


24 Comments / Post A Comment

Harriet Welch (#127)

That is the best and most awesome birthday advice I have ever heard.
Also, thanks for addressing stuff like this. It has become super relevant to me since I got married and my husband’s divorced parents are both complete disaster cases.I am not used to this because my parents are crazy young and nuts about insurance. My parents are also divorced and hate each other, but they both have insurance thus their kids will never have to pick one or the other set to take care of.
His mom lives on a trust set up by her mom, but the executors are DOUCHEBAGS who resent her for “stealing from” their children’s inheritance because she is legitimately incapable of taking care of herself. She really needs to be in some kind of assisted living situation (can’t keep track of her meds, meets AWFUl people who take advantage of her, makes bad decisions)but the executors say she can’t afford it, despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of dollars in the trust and she is trying to lie about her health to donate plasma. My husband’s father’s house is in the throes of foreclosure, he just had double bypass surgery, has no health insurance and works by the job so has no 401k, retirement or long-term care insurance.
What the fuck are we supposed to do? We make enough to support ourselves, but I literally stay awake at night and feel horrible and ill because I don’t know what we are going to do when his parents bad life decisions and poor planning catch up with them. They hate each other so we can’t just move them both into an apartment near by. We can’t afford to take care of them. I am also just really resentful toward them for not being grown-ups and doing grown-up things and making good choices and providing for their care. Then I feel like shit because I am a bad person for being angry about this…
That got a little out of hand. I’ll let it stand though, just in case someone else can commiserate or offer advice.
So, sorry for the freakout.

Harriet Welch (#127)

@Harriet Welch Also, sorry for scaring off all other comment-leavers with said freakout.

@Harriet Welch I just created an account to tell you that you did not scare off other commenters–in fact, you have created other commenters! out of thin air! not bad for a Tuesday. And I’m sorry about your in-laws, that does sound miserably stressful. You’re not a bad person for being angry about it, at all. But you might want to sit down with your husband to talk frankly about what you guys will and won’t be able to do about all these problems, so that it doesn’t keep you up at night. It’s weird to talk about someone else’s parent’s problems, because people are always really protective of their parents even if they are the Worst In The World, but if you approach it from a “how can we do our best to help your parents and still take care of our stuff” place instead of a “your parents are totally irresponsible and making me crazed” place, it might help you guys to come up with a plan. And if you have a plan, even if it’s only that you plan to let them sort out their own messes, or that you have some emergency fund set up for them in case things get really dire, you can look at that when you wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, and say, “oh, if that thing I’m panicking about happens, we’ll do XYZ. cool. back to sleep.”

cliuless (#36)

@Harriet Welch I think it’s a perfectly reasonable fear/anger. You’re not a bad person at all. The most important thing, really, is that you and your husband are on the same page. My parents had to deal with my dad’s parents for nearly twenty years. My mom definitely got angry that they were saddled with the responsibility of caring for two elderly adults with serious health problems, when they could barely afford to pay the bills and raise me and my brother. It also killed her that she couldn’t do more to help out her own mom when she was dying. And I’m sure there were fights I was too young to remember, but I think what got them through it was that they were a team.

sony_b (#225)

@Harriet Welch I commiserate. My folks are fine. My boyfriend’s father and stepmother are fine. Everybody planned ahead and while their retirements aren’t quite as lucrative as they thought they’d be, they won’t be eating cat food any time soon either. Thank goodness for that.

His mother, however, is a Piece Of Work. The most polite way to put it is that she’s a grifter. She also happens to be “president of a bible college” in a rather war-torn country in the middle of Africa.

When her father died a couple of years ago (before she left for Africa) she asked both of her children, all four of her siblings, and her mother for “$300 for gas and things so she could get to the funeral”. I believe 5 out of 7 of those people “loaned” her the money and only found out that everyone else did after the fact.

No savings. A ridiculous fake-pious attitude that makes me insane. (I’m not religious, but she’s over the top.) No insurance. $100 per month income from the school where she is now. She’s talking about retiring and coming home some time next year, and dropping hints about living with us. OH HELL NO.

Anyway. So sorry that you have this hanging over your head.

My dad just turned 70 and we got him a Kindle – which he loves because he can adjust the font size for anything he reads up or down as his vision shifts.

Harriet Welch (#127)

Aww thanks!
We have talked about it. Unfortunately, we are both sort of at a loss. My husband was raised by these people, so he doesn’t have a good idea of what to do. I was raised by people who could take care of themselves, so I don’t have a good idea of what to do. He is also frustrated and worried. We are working on setting up an emergency fund in case something happens to US. What we have pretty much gotten to so far is that we really can’t have either of them live with us. But will we really let his dad make himself homeless? Probably not. If we let his dad move in, since he has zero support, and not his mom, since she has some outside financial care she will be mad. When I people make her mad she tells others that they abuse her. Working with children, this will render me jobless, thus furthering the difficulty of the situation.
We moved his mom to the same town as us so that we could keep an eye on her, but his dad refuses to come here because his mom is here. We’ve looked into long term care insurance, but since his dad has already had a severe “heart episode” and because his mom is already in seriously failing health it is cost prohibitive to the extreme. Like, 40% of our monthly income extreme. We just can’t afford that. My husband’s job has loads of growth potential/income growth potential. If he doubles his income in the next few years (which is totally possible) we can afford long term care coverage, but not children of our own. Not to sound impudent or childish but it is just not fucking fair for us to have to make that choice. Do we take care of the people who spawned my husband, or do we get to actualize both of our lifelong dreams of parenthood?
It just seems like an impossible situation. I also don’t even know who to begin to ask for help to figure it out.

editrickster (#279)

@Harriet Welch Thanks for this! My mom is in pretty good financial shape but my Dad is definitely not thanks to a second marriage to an insane lady + being self-employed for decades means he has no retirement (he does have health insurance which he purchases, plus he takes pretty good care of himself). Now that he’s divorced from his horrible ex-wife (not my mom), I don’t lay awake worrying about him, but I do wish there had been some foresight about the consequences of these choices and how they would affect his quality of life now.

Harriet Welch (#127)

Oh jeeze. That is ROUGH!
My mother-in-law makes up her own reality. When we told her we would help her move to Gainesville (after she bought a one way ticket to my wedding!!!! Honeymoon=MIL in my house for two weeks) she got upset when she realized she wouldn’t be living with us.
She also lies ALL THE TIME. She does it to manipulate my husband and try to get him to give her money to send to her other son that is in jail (who threatened my husband’s life).
I feel for you!! Especially if your boyfriend is potential forever material. My husband didn’t talk to his dad when we meet and only talked to his mom on the phone about once a week. This is not at all what I planned on my life being. So if he is a forever sort, it is definitely something to prepare for.

Harriet Welch (#127)

@cliuless Oh my goodness. That sounds like such a struggle. I sincerely hope that I won’t have to not do everything for my parents, or not as much as I would like for my children. Especially since I am take-a-bullet-unhealthily-close to my parents and, to be frank, am angry and resentful toward my in-laws. Ugh ugh ugh. Your poor mom.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Harriet Welch What you two need to do is get power of attorney for your mother-in-law’s affairs. I also strongly recommend you see a lawyer to find out what you can do about the trust or not. She’s an elderly adult with health problems and can’t access her own trust? Christ almighty. That’s sick shit that certainly her own mother never meant to inflict. ETA: The ideal outcome being that if you can loosen the trust money, you can also have legal control over it and become more reasonable and compassionate executors. ETA again: That may include promising her you’ll send x amount of money to the other son even if you hate his guts.

TL;DR Lawyer up.

Harriet Welch (#127)

The executor is his uncle. His uncle is his mom’s sister’s husband. His mom’s sister is just as crazy, she just married better.
He is a lawyer.
She should NOT be able to access her own trust. Her mother gave her two houses, a condo and a boat in different years and all of them she signed over to whatever dude she was banging. She is not, never has been and never will be able to take care of her.
However, her greedy douchebag brother-in-law is not the answer either.
Unfortunately we can’t really afford a lawyer, plus the trust is in a different state so it would be an out of state lawyer too. IDK if trust laws are the same place to place.

sony_b (#225)

@Harriet Welch Yeah, he is a forever sort (we just bought a house together). For the most part he sees her for what she is. We chose the last place we lived very specifically because it didn’t have anything remotely like a guest room just because of her.

Another great example of her charming behavior – this year he called and sent her an email on Mother’s Day. She never responded. She also completely blew off his 30th birthday (3 months ago now). But she posts on FB all the time about how much she loves her kids and how they make her life worth living. Which gets all kids of “praise the lord for giving us such great families” comments that make me wanna barf.

Anyway we are entirely on the same page right now, (no help for her, she can’t live with us, if she comes to visit all of our financial records will be moved someplace else so she can’t snoop them) but I worry that if she’s ever truly indigent (or pretending to be) that he’ll give in.

@Harriet Welch Personally, I think when you get married you’ve made a choice that prioritizes your relationship with your partner, and any family you raise together, above all other relationships, so you have every right to protect those interests above the interests of the parents. I think most parents would agree that if their child and their parent were both drowning in a pool, they would save their child first. I’m not saying let your mother-in-law drown in a pool, but also don’t let choices made to save her prevent you and your husband from building your life together.

Harriet Welch (#127)

YAY! Congrats on the house and the forever sort of dude. Crazy moms or not.

We have totally done something similar.
I found an AMAZING house with a mother-in-law suite and wanted to move into the house and have a really awesome friend move into the back. His mom found out and wanted to move in. Her caretakers offered to pay half of the rent and all of the utilities. I didn’t want to sound like a jerk when I explained the flatass rule that my MIL cannot live within 1 mile of us until she learns to respect boundaries (which will be never). Do your best to stick to your guns. It will be hard though.

I talked my friend into moving into the house and moving her daughter into the suite so that it was completely impossible.

My MIL also likes to tout her “mother” status. Her version of her parenting skills are hilariously skewed. “Packed my kids lunches” = stale sandwiches in briefcases. “Encouraged them to work hard at school”= begged my husband, at 6, to stay home with her. “Travelled with her kids”=moving to the keys while her sons were on a weekend visit to their dad.
Isn’t it amazing how these people can seriously think that they are family?

Harriet Welch (#127)

@Harriet Welch Realized how that sounded kind of one-up-y. I more meant to express their similarities. I think my MIl and your boyfriend’s mom would be friends. In the sense that they would inflate their roles as mothers to each other and be generally parasitic toward each other.

Harriet Welch (#127)

That is a great point. It’s still hard to digest. But really, thank you, thank you, thank you for your amazing non-judgementalness and sympathy. This is something I am really grappling with but am hesitant to talk about with most people. Thank you times a million.

selyse (#497)

@Harriet Welch, first I am so sorry. What a sucky and stressful situation. I think Tina has an excellent point and I wholeheartedly agree … when you get married (or whatever form your relationship takes), your priority becomes your partner and the family you build together (in whatever form that takes). You mentioned being exceptionally close to your own parents – perhaps that is making you feel more “responsible” for this situation than is emotionally healthy for you? Parents are (in most cases) grown ups who have made choices that they must accept responsibility for. Like any other relationship, if the fallout from those choices take an unhealthy toll on you, it’s up to you to draw appropriate boundaries. Boundaries!! This doesn’t make you a bad or ungrateful child, it makes you a responsible adult and that is (should be) the fondest wish and greatest dream realized for any parent. Also, Mike Dang, you are so awesome.

Harriet Welch (#127)

@selyse I feel responsible for family. I wouldn’t let my parents become homeless so I don’t see how it is fair to have a double standard for my husband’s parents.
Because of the dysfunction that my family has been through and gotten over, I am great at boundaries. This has lead to my close relationships with my parents. One of those boundaries is that we will never ever ever live together again. They also like to say “We are raising adults, not children”.
So I love your perspective on boundaries. I agree with you wholeheartedly and I will absolutely teach my children the same thing.
His father accepts boundaries and is actually sweet and delightful company. I could actually live with him despite his unfortunate ways.
His mom is like a small child. She spent two weeks at our house and we had to go over DAILY that we wear clothes in common areas, close the door when you’re in the bathroom or in your bedroom, we knock on closed doors, don’t walk to the gas station for 40oz beers when you have hepatitis and have been in AA for 5 years and don’t lie. Since she left we tell her she gets to call once a day, not four times a day (I am absolutely not exaggerating). We will take her to the store once a week, not three times a week. We will eat dinner with her once a week and breakfast once a week, not every day. She can come over, her dog can’t.
She still exhibits all of these inappropriate behaviors.

Blah, I am just venting now and making this situation seem more hopeless than it can possibly be.

His mom will, at least, be fed and housed for the rest of her life, even if she isn’t *properly* cared for in my mind. His dad is a scrappy survivor who always manages to get along. Even if we had to offer him help, I could handle him in a mother-in-law suite.

So, as long as the brother gets sentenced to a nice long stint in prison I can handle the family I married into.

Have I mentioned that my husband is an amazing, wonderful, brilliant, kind, loving, funny, gentle, compassionate, silly, thoughtful, romantic and all around lovely person. He clearly was raised by the correct wolves.

selyse (#497)

@Harriet Welch Isn’t it funny how the most amazing people can come from the most messed up parents? I hope that at the very least, these conversations have validated that you have every right to be angry about a really difficult situation and that you are a totally stand-up wife!

charmcity (#1,091)

Health costs are usually the biggest (or at least in proportion to fixed income, proportionally much bigger) cost for older people, so it’s worth finding out if your parents have insurance through Medicare, a former employer, etc. Every state has a CMS-funded Senior Health Insurance Project staffed by people to counsel Medicare beneficiaries or people who have questions about this stuff. And even though Medicare is a federal program, states have vastly different criteria for supplementary medical assistance that can help with the cost of premiums, deductibles, Rx, etc. It’s worth checking out, even though it can be very complicated, because a simple application could save some older folks thousands in medical costs every year.

Harriet Welch (#127)

@charmcity Absolutely thank you for pointing that out. My husband’s mother is on Medicare, his father is working on it now. It’s just going to cover his medications and doctors though. He hasn’t paid in enough into social security to get enough out of it to live on (thanks to a lifetime of lying on his taxes). He’s been self employed for his whole life. Absolutely thank you for pointing that out though. Especially with the new expansions and stuff people are really confused about when and how they can become eligible.

meg (#329)

way to make me tear up at my desk, Mike Dang!

pilcrow (#1,713)

I know! Who would think reading money talk would make me end up with a little sniffle.

Comments are closed!