Parents And Finances: An Uneasy Mix

A reader wrote to me recently with the following concerns about the financial health of her parents:

I’m still repairing my own finances (I’m out of debt but still working on retirement, I don’t yet own a home though I am 34)… but my parents have NO health insurance and NO retirement funds whatsoever. How does one prioritize such a thing? How would I prevent my parents’ continuing disaster of a life from undermining my own progress? How should I protect their meager assets (one house, no cars, no stocks, no bonds, no savings account, $10,00 cash) from the state before something befalls their health?

This is a situation where the raw financials of the situation rub strongly against cultural and personal values, and these values are going to be vastly different not only from culture to culture, but from family to family. Because of that, advice that would work for one specific family may create enormous problems if directly applied to other families.

Regardless of your family, there is a general framework of things that you can do to help everyone get on the same page that I discussed in detail earlier:

Don’t be angry. Quite often, parents will make statements and suggestions that provoke a sense of anger in the child, even if that’s not their intention. If you find yourself getting angry during this talk, look like you’re thinking, count to ten, and then ask yourself why exactly you got angry. Usually, it’s defensiveness, so ask yourself what you’re defending and why. In many cases, you’re defending a paper castle, something that you’d be better off revealing than hiding.

If their attitude makes you uncomfortable, ask questions. If they appear superior and condescending, ask them calmly if they’ve ever been in an awkward money situation before and how they dealt with it. Ask them how they would deal with your situation given that the past can’t be changed. Do it calmly and rationally above all, because anger is the one element that will cause this conversation to collapse.

Be completely open. If you are hiding things, you will only make things worse. Your life doesn’t have to be an open book, but if something is relevant to the topic, be open about it rather than hiding it. Not only will this answer more of your questions, it will encourage your parents to be more open as well.

Don’t be combative. Don’t enter into a financial conversation perceiving it to be a war, with ground gained and lost. Instead, look at it as a situation to personally improve yourself. The only way people win in conversation is if they gain a greater understanding of the issues discussed, not if they “win” or “lose.” Thus, quite often there’s nothing to argue or feel resentment about.

Ask lots of questions. The most valuable thing you can gain from a conversation is a resolution to the questions inside of you, so ask every question that comes to mind. Not only will you receive answers, giving others the chance to talk and say what’s on their mind will make them more calm and collected as well.

In addition, if you expect the talk to be difficult:

Figure out how you actually feel. Clearly, the reader above has some emotional ties to the situation that are quite messy. “Continuing disaster of a life” is a phrase that indicates some pretty strong negative feelings, and those feelings should be clarified. What do you feel is the right thing to do? If you’re harboring feelings contrary to your stated position, it’s going to be very hard to communicate well and communicate fairly with your family. If you believe something needs to change, have the courage to say so or don’t bother at all. That doesn’t mean you should be rude, merely that you should speak in a way that matches what you actually think is right.

Check your ego at the door. If you’re going to be honest, everyone needs to check their ego at the door. There is going to be some criticism in the air, and if people are adamantly holding onto their pride and their ego, not much will be accomplished.

State your expectations. The best first step to take is for everyone to state what they expect from everyone else. What do you expect from your parents? Financial independence? Planning? What do your parents expect from you? Financial support in their dotage? Likely, these expectations won’t match up and that’s the reason this conversation is happening at all.