Grandpa Is Honest With Me About Money (And That He Has Very Little)

My 87-year-old grandfather is unusually honest with me about money, mostly about the fact that he has very little. I found out last year that Grandpa has about five years left before he’s completely broke, meaning if he and my 82-year-old Gram hit their late eighties and nineties, they won’t have anything left to live on.

He doesn’t tell me because he expects my help. If anything, he’s too proud to accept it. Gram doesn’t know how close they are to broke, can’t know. Instead, Grandpa shares his financial concerns with me because we have a fairly honest and open relationship. I call at least once a week and tell them both about my work, my marriage, my life. I send them postcards when I travel. Gram sends me typed letters when she feels well enough to write.

Like a lot of senior citizens in this country, Gram and Grandpa live on an extremely fixed income. He’s a veteran and retired minister, so he gets military and church pension on top of Social Security. Gram worked intermittently for the church over the years between bouts of health trouble but never earned a pension. None of that adds up to very much end-of-life savings. Because they always lived in parsonage and never their own home, they didn’t have decades worth of income from owning real estate. They have a lot of health problems, which runs up quite a bill too, even with Medicare and Medicaid kicking in.


The Walmart 15 miles down the road from their rural central Florida trailer park is the closest—and by far the cheapest—market my grandparents have. They buy everything there: eggs, bread, Cool Whip, air freshener. Last time I visited, I did their shopping so Grandpa wouldn’t have to leave Gram alone at home.

For the past decade, I’ve lived in cities where local residents won’t even allow a Walmart to move in—and there are lots of good reasons why: Walmart is bad for small businesses, they’re often bad for workers. But for me, the self-righteous politicizing about Walmart stops mattering when it’s the only place the people I love can shop. After I grabbed everything on Grandpa’s short list, I paid the $20-something bill myself, knowing he could do nothing but protest later, far too late for it to matter. When I got back to their place, I slipped the money he’d given me for the trip back into his wallet, along with a $100 gift card.

I wouldn’t have mentioned it to him except that I could predict his reaction. About two weeks later, I called after 8 p.m., knowing Gram would be asleep and we could talk without her getting on the second phone to join in. “Did you find anything in your wallet recently?” I asked.

“I did!” Grandpa practically shouted. “I went back over my notes again and again, trying to figure out where it came from. I was sure I forgot to thank someone!” He’d thought it was a holiday gift of some sort, that he’d forgotten to call some poor unthanked friend.

“I’m not telling you because I want you to thank me,” I said. “I’m telling you so you don’t worry.” Obviously, I should have told him sooner, but I first had to get back home to California so we didn’t get into a ridiculous in-person back-and-forth about how he thinks I can’t afford it. We repeat ourselves a lot, him increasingly concerned that I’m not saving for old age, me reassuring him, “We have it under control. We love you. It’s our turn to help.”

My grandparents have always been extremely generous, to the point of giving away small sums of money when they don’t have it to spare. Since I was a child, they’ve sent anywhere from $25 to $75 for birthdays and holidays. Now that I’m married, my husband also gets $25—one large check covers my Christmas Eve birthday and Christmas for us both, itemized in the memo field. When I finished my master’s degree and was packing to move to Copenhagen, they sent me $300 toward a new bike. Giving is a point of pride for them and especially important to my Gram, maybe because she has no idea that the $25 she just sent to one of her upwardly mobile grandson-in-laws would have paid for her biweekly grocery bill.

A couple of years ago, they sent me $40 on my birthday. I was in northern Denmark, spending the holidays with my lovely Danish in-laws, financially comfortable retired librarians who have always lived with little need or want for anything. When I opened the envelope that contained two twenty-dollar bills, unusable overseas but yet another more generous gift than my grandparents could actually afford to send, my eyes clouded up, and I hurriedly excused myself. Behind closed doors, I cried about poverty and inequality. My in-laws probably spent $40 on chocolates to serve during the holidays that year, and I cried about the economic state of the world that suddenly felt like it was resting on my shoulders.

Even before I knew how dire their financial situation had become, that unspendable $40 came to represent everything about how my financial relationship with my grandparents would work going forward. In my most supposedly “broke” state, I always have $40. Relatively speaking, I always have $400 or even $4,000. So now, when Grandpa tells me his microwave has stopped working, I wonder how quickly I can send him a new one. When their cordless phone went on the fritz earlier this year, I sent a mid-range replacement via Amazon before Grandpa even had time to head to Walmart to price the cheap ones. If I could figure out what kind of typewriter ribbon Gram uses in her electric Smith Corona, I’d send her a case of it.

A couple of months ago, I sent Grandpa another gift card—a $500 one. Frankly, I didn’t buy one worth $1,000 because I worry about stressing all those stents supporting his heart. And, he’s a proud man, so he isn’t always thrilled that I do this stuff. He’s appreciative, sure. But he worries that I’m somehow frittering away my retirement savings on him, forgetting that I learned to live modestly from his example. This time, I gave him a heads up and called late at night to warn him that two envelopes were on the way: one, a holiday card addressed to him and Gram that they could open together, and another, a nondescript envelope addressed only to him with a note written on an index card that he could quickly toss out before she saw it. The actual gift card would fit snugly in his shirt pocket. By the time he got back from his walk to the mailbox, I knew he’d have it tucked away.

We’ve never spoken about the amount, though I might get an earful when I visit later this spring. Knowing Grandpa, he’ll make this card last the better part of this year. But I know how to check the account balance. As soon as it dips below $40—or whenever I visit next, whichever comes sooner—he’ll get another one.

Brittany Shoot’s grandparents read her articles in Time, Mental Floss, and Sojourners when she mails them a copy. // photo of Grandpa by Brittany Shoot.


31 Comments / Post A Comment

KittyConner (#3,108)

Brittany Shoot is the Mike Dang of granddaughters. In that she is the best of granddaughters.

mondle (#2,860)

Oh god it’s raining on my face. My grandparents are ok financially (I think? They never talk about it), and luckily they live in a different country with free healthcare and a social safety net, but I still worry.

I was never able to help my grandparents like that – I was in college and grad school as they aged and passed away – and I wished I could have. I called them often and wrote cards when I traveled and that was the best I could do to let them know they were loved.

Aaaaaaand now I can say a Billfold article made me cry.

antheridia (#2,995)

This article makes me so sad, but also so happy because Brittany is awesome and I wish every destitute grandparent had a granddaughter like her!

Lily Rowan (#70)

Among other things, I love that it’s an actual picture of Grandpa!

shoot (#1,281)

@Lily Rowan Actual picture of Grandpa forcibly paying the bill at a restaurant, no less! To his credit, he paid that particular day to celebrate that my partner and I had finally gotten married. The epic battle of who gets to leave the tip rages on…

Lily Rowan (#70)

@shoot Aw, Grandpa.

It can help to have a third party there — I one time bought lunch for my mother and grandmother while they were arguing over who would pay.

melis (#42)

Oh man, this was just tremendous. Thank you so much for this.

shoot (#1,281)

@Lily Rowan I usually work in stealth mode and pay before anyone knows what’s happening, but I couldn’t deny him that day. He was so excited! We’d been married for a while but waited to tell him and Gram that we’d made it official until we were there in person. And then they prayed for our lifelong happiness right there under the outdoor diner table umbrella! Grandparent <3

Lily Rowan (#70)

@shoot <3 <3 <3

thatgirl (#1,965)

I don’t have to worry about taking care of my grandparents because my parents are doing an absolutely wonderful job of that.

But I call them at least once, sometimes twice a week when I’m on my lunch break and listen to the same stories as always, and hear about my grandmother’s physical therapy or my grandfather’s golf game (because the man is 87 and still goes out on their community’s little 9 hole chip and putt course every day he can). And I know it means so much to them to hear from me and my sister, even when we’re not saying anything exciting or new.

hungrybee (#73)

I love a person who loves her grandparents – thank you, Brittany. I have the exact same feelings about Walmart, and for the exact same reasons. My grandma lovingly calls them “the drug dealer”, so there’s that, too.

dudeascending (#1,921)

This was a really amazing, moving piece, so please take this question in that spirit:

If your grandfather has two pensions and Social Security, how will they be completely broke? Is it that their expenses will exceed that income? Did his pensions run out of money? Does Social Security cut off after a certain number of years or payments? Are their costs for medical care overwhelming everything else?

If you know what model SC your grandmother has, you can use this guide to figure out what kind of ribbons it takes:

shoot (#1,281)

@dudeascending Totally fair question. The simple answer is that they 1) lost a lot of savings when the stock market crashed in 2008. Then, 2) these are very small pensions we’re talking about, which are then coupled with 3) very high medical bills, like several years in assisted living facility kind of bills. Their bills every month are slightly more than what they bring in, so the remaining savings is slowly being spent. With no opportunity for more income, that’s the truly frightening part.

probs (#296)

This was great. Reminds me that I need to visit my Mamaw.

dudeascending (#1,921)

@shoot Ugh, that is rough. You may have already looked at, but if not, please please take a look and see if there’s anything your grandparents are eligible for now, or later on. Since he’s an older veteran, he’ll get preference for many programs. I know you wrote that your grandfather is proud, but maybe he’ll accept help for your grandmother’s sake? Or later on, if things get really dire?

shoot (#1,281)

@dudeascending I’m going to visit next month and am definitely going to look over his benefits if he’ll let me. He doesn’t utilize much from the VA because it’s so far from where he lives, but I bet there are other programs he could tap into via the benefits site. Thanks much for the suggestions (and for the typewriter tip!)

Mae (#1,769)

@shoot There is a benefit called the Aid and Attendance pension for veterans and spouses who need long term care. You don’t have to be receiving care from a VA hospital in order to get it – as I understand it, it can be applied to charges from any assisted living facility, and can also act as a kind of supplemental income for elderly, low income veterans.

You can read more about it here:

This piece was wonderful, by the way.

This article brings up some Emotions for me. My granddad, who died in 2011 (in his late 80s), worked for the government most of his life and had a solid pension and never really wanted for anything in his old age. My dad, on the other hand, has argued for basically my whole life that the best way to get ahead is to start your own business and be your own boss. Which… hasn’t gone great for him, I must say. Now my parents are getting older and I’m worried how they’re going to get by with NO savings and a house that’s underwater. I make enough now that I can afford to pay for dinner once in a while if we eat out but that’s about it.

@stuffisthings My grandmother on my mom’s side, also retired on a generous government pension, has now become a raging Tea Partier, which is kind of funny. (But at least she can afford her food and tango lessons.)

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@stuffisthings This sounds VERY familiar.
Up until very recently I was paying all of my mum’s bills/rent. I stopped last year and then got a text from her last night that’s she’s well behind on her rent and one of her biggest clients (this guy is her bread and butter) doesn’t need her this month like, at all. So not much coming in this month.
As of this week I scale back to part-time work so I can also study for my BHSC – I can’t help her. :S

sunflowernut (#1,638)

My grandparents on my mom’s side live off of social security and a very nice pension my grandfather has from being a bus driver in Detroit all his life. My grandparents on my dad’s side however, relied on my rich uncle to keep them afloat for many years before they passed away. I still think about it and how lucky we are that my uncle was able to help them out in that way, and get all teary eyed.

Thank you so much for this article. I hope you are able to figure out something for them like the above mentioned VA benefits.

margaretcatwood (#2,236)

oh, this is lovely.

chic noir (#713)

OMG this was so sweet. Like I really teared up reading it. It ‘s pretty obvious you love your Pop-Pop and he loves you very much.

Have you and your parents made any plans about what you are going to do to support your grand parents after they run out of money?

* Goes to dry eyes*

@ shoot – Check out the VA for assisted living help-
My mom was the widow of a veteren and there was a program that was available that gave financial assistance for assisted living- I never got to fully investigate it because my mom passed so quickly. My heartfelt advice to you is to see if you can investigate their Medicare benefts – it is very overwhelming and confusing for seniors- and often benefits are left on the table.

Whoops I meant Veteran NOT veteren!
@ shoot
here is a times article explaining that few seniors know that they are eligible

BlackAndBlueMan (#2,773)

Sadly, both of my mother’s parents died years before I was born, but my paternal grandparents played a big role in my early life. Nanny died when I was 17; a few years later, Pa (a World War Two veteran who at one time had worked four jobs to support his family) had a massive stroke that he survived but very cruelly left him severely disabled for the last seven years of his life.

This was a great article that brought back many fond memories of two people who I wish were still here. Thank you very much for writing this.

BillFolgers (#3,280)

I could be wrong, but it sounds to me like this looks like a bankruptcy situation. Any financially literate people out there that could confirm this?

If Trump, (and many many other people) can claim bankruptcy and continue on, your grandfather should consider it if it is equally appropriate for his situation.

I don’t know exactly how these things work (at all), but my wild guess would say that your grandfather might be able to create a trust, and then file for bankruptcy. This requires planning, and the help of a financial planner, I would think (if it is even possible).

Since a majority of these bills were incurred due to medical bills, this seems to me a logical course of action (assuming it is legal & legit). Morally, I would find this unobjectionable (although goodness knows, money and morals do not always walk hand-in-glove), I mean it’s not like your grandparents drank and gambled themselves into financial peril, and should have to suffer the consequences. I don’t think the intent of our financial system is to impoverish people. Although that has too often been the way our healthcare system works.

Still though, “sheltering money” is a whole huge industry. There’s no reason that I can see that it should apply exclusively to the rich (ie. those who hire professionals skilled in this area of expertise).

There are definite senior citizen considerations – I know, for one, that medicaid (not medicare) has a look-back period, and I don’t know how that will (or will not) change under the new healthcare.

But my point here is that people with resources hire other people to make the most financially sound decisions, and those people they hire are very knowledgeable about how to protect wealth. I would look into what can be done at this point to maximize your grandparents situation financially. Spending what remaining recources they have left down doesn’t seem to me like the wisest (or only) course of action. It’s good to pay your bills, but if you (at some near future point) aren’t going to pay your bills anyway, you’re still ultimately not paying your bills. Sometimes you can’t. That’s what bankruptcy is for, that the sole reason why it exists.

I know these things are really tricky, but I’d at least talk to someone, or ask around to see if I could get any information.

From the web:

“A major reason to delay a bankruptcy filing is that it might affect certain property or asset transfers you make, and so it may affect your overall case. For instance, if you transfer property and then, soon after, file for bankruptcy, a bankruptcy trustee can set aside or void these transfers. The amount of time that passed after transferring property is important!

The trustee can set aside or void the following transfers if you file too soon:

You intentionally transferred, destroyed or mutilated property within one year of the filing to defraud or cheat your creditors
You made payments to some creditors but not to others within a prescribed time period
You fraudulently transferred property within two years of the bankruptcy filing
You purchased luxury goods and services within 90 days of filing for bankruptcy
When a transfer is set aside, the trustee may take the property back or demand payment for its value from the person you transferred it to. The property or money then can be used to pay off your creditors.”

BillFolgers (#3,280)

By tricky, I meant your grandfather (who is obviously very proud) might not want to declare bankruptcy. But if you could explain to him that Trump has declared bankruptcy, and that he’s not the only one….!

Abraham Lincoln
Thomas Jefferson
Henry Ford
Walt Disney
Milton Hershey (of Hershey’s chocolates)
Burt Reynolds
Wolfgang Amadeus
Mark Twain
Wayne Newton (OMG How RICH is that dude, now? So rich thanks Las Vegas! google says $100 Million)
Stan Lee

and a ton of others…..

levangieg (#3,282)

This was such a sweet and loving article, but I wonder how your grandfather would feel if he knew that his photo and your real name were appearing next to an article about his dwindling bank account? If he’s trying to keep your grandmother from finding out, surely this is something that might blow his cover? For example, they probably proudly tell their friends that you’re a writer – even if your grandparents don’t google your articles, their friends might, right?

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