Mom has uncontrollable spending habits. What can I do?
December 1, 2008 3:14 PM   Subscribe

Mom has uncontrollable spending habits. What can I do?

Ok. This has been driving me crazy from a very early age. My mom can't seem to understand that you must pay for things that you buy when you buy them! She has always had terrible spending habits and I am really not sure what I need to do anymore. She insists that since it has worked out for so many years that things will just solve themselves. Can I save her?

Here is alittle bit of her history

Grew up spoiled and parents paid for everything.
Married my dad (a doctor)
Spent money carelessly (understandable since we had it)
Got divorced. Continued to spend money carelessly.
Raked up over 20,000 in debt.
Married again. Husband helped bail her out of debt.
Divorced again.
Raked up more debt.
Sold the house to make a very nice profit (sold before housing collapse).
Bought a smaller house.
Continues to rake up large amounts of debt.
I see no bail out unless she remarries.
(she has had jobs on and off for a long time, but for the most part likes being a house wife)

My observations

My mom continues to spend money on things she cannot afford! No matter what I tell her she doesn't seem to understand that being in debt and paying off just the interest is a horrible way to manage money.

I have been telling her my whole life that she needs to pay for only what she can afford. To live by her means. But she never changes anything! I don't know if its because I am her son or not.

Take 2 weeks ago. She doesn't have a steady job and she decides to repaint the house and hire professional cleaners. Boom $1300 dollars. She buys 2 brand new fold out couches for $400 a pop because they were on sale and guests may come. I tell her she could of bought those for much cheaper but she wanted something "new".

All this spending and no incoming money. She even got a home equity loan for some such amount and I know she is using that money to pay for living expenses and such until her "business" takes off. I really don't see her as a business type or her product making her a decent income in the foreseeable future.

Her retirement plan is to move in with me or my brother. I don't think thats fair but thats beside the point.


At this point it feels like being in a train with the throttle stuck in the full on position. She either goes bankrupt and loses everything, accepts what she has been doing this whole time and learns to live frugally or she changes her behavior now before the wreck.

The question is can I do anything about it or do I just let her crash?

I have tried for 18 odds years for her to listen to me and not spend but she doesn't seem to care about what I say when it comes to spending habits.

There anything I can do to change her spending behavior?
Maybe I can buy a book for her or something...

The reason I know her spending habits is because I live with her at the moment but plan to move out as soon as college is done.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The question is can I do anything about it or do I just let her crash?

But you did do something about it. You tried your very best to talk some sense into her.

If she refuses to take your advice, there is, I'm sad to say, nothing else you can do. Your mom is a grown woman and grown-ups have the right to make foolish choices and screw up their lives. Even when you love them very much.

For me, that realization was an important part of growing up.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:32 PM on December 1, 2008

If you've tried for 18 years, then you're outta luck. Spending habits are like eating habits and smoking addictions and alcoholism and most other "vice" behaviors: They're not going to change unless the practitioner wants to change them.

Maybe you could convince her to see a financial advisor who will break apart her spending and savings and debt and give her the what-for, that would wake her up. But otherwise it's probably not going to happen.
posted by schroedinger at 3:33 PM on December 1, 2008

You can't change her. You can suggest Debtors Anonymous or therapy, but unless she sees a problem, nothing is going to change. She's got an addiction. A book will not help. Sorry. Move out and don't loan her money.
posted by desjardins at 3:45 PM on December 1, 2008

It's her money, or lack thereof. It's her life. She knows what she's doing, and is choosing to continue. She may very well meet husband #3, for yet another bailout. Feel free to send her links to personal finance blogs, praise her when she shows restraint, and remain silent when she's a spendthrift. Encourage her to invest in a 401K, so that she'll have something to live on in retirement, since you may not be able to support her. I don't think you'll be successful in changing her. I would begin gently letting her know that you don't anticipate supporting her in retirement.
posted by theora55 at 3:45 PM on December 1, 2008

Being completely serious here, but maybe you should try e-mailing some TV shows like Oprah (helps if you have Skype) and heck even Tyra to shame your mom?
posted by spec80 at 3:48 PM on December 1, 2008

If she was addicted to Alcohol or Heroin you'd likely have an intervention for her. It sounds like it's time for that.

If she got a home equity loan, the money from the house sale is likely long gone.

I don't see if you said how old you are, if you are traditional college age (e.g. in your early 20s) if their another adult you can ask for help, maybe your father?

THe thing that makes it your business if he plan to move in with you in the future.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 3:49 PM on December 1, 2008

I don't mean this to sound harsh, but in all honesty, unless her spending directly impacts you financially, and her spending makes it so that you can't afford to eat/clothe yourself/whatever, the way she runs her finances is not really your problem. By pointing out ways she could be smarter, you've done all you can, and you'll only stress yourself out trying to change her habits unless she wants to change them.

The one lever that you may have left, if you really want to help her change, is to make it clear to her that her "retirement plan" is not an option - that she cannot live with you when she retires if she doesn't get her finances in order soon. This only works if your brother does the same thing, and even then it may not work, but it's something.
posted by pdb at 3:50 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I went through something similar with a close family member. When the time came, they fumbled through developing some skills to handle it. Not particularly well, mind you, but they did. She's not going to listen to you.

You could, however, go guerrilla on her, cutting up her credit cards, returning the couches when she's not looking, etc.

The question is, how desperate are you?
posted by letahl at 3:52 PM on December 1, 2008

If she hasn't "crashed" yet it seems unlikely you'll be able to reason her out of it. Especially if you're a dependent living at home. It's worked out in the past, and as as a minor (?) you've got precious few grounds for challenging her (incredibly lucky) real-world experience.

I wouldn't bother trying to talk about it in terms of her own self-interest -- talk about it in terms of yours. "I am going to be leaving home soon" "I'm really worried that if you can't find a husband to take over your debts, you're going to come to me -- it's not fair to put your kids in this position"

Or the more extreme case, "I am not going to be ABLE to support you / won't be willing to support you- morally financially, ethically, if/when your finances go south. Just so we're clear on this upfront - if you find yourself in a really bad spot, don't come to me for help."

This being the argument that most parents give to their children. Draconian and presumptuous -- on the other hand, what you've described is a terrifying situation to be in with someone you love, and it never hurts to lay out the worst case scenario.

Either way, good luck.
posted by puckish at 4:00 PM on December 1, 2008

which is just to second everything that came above
posted by puckish at 4:02 PM on December 1, 2008

Mostly I agree with others that it's her life, and she can be as careless and irresponsible as she chooses. However: recently I learned that a longtime friend's mother, who sounds similar to your mother in behavior and circumstance, is suffering increasing bouts of mild dementia and has been severely taken advantage of financially. She was tricked into giving a boarder thousands of dollars and sent money to the Nigerians. Seriously. Tens of thousands of dollars disappeared before her kids found out. I'm not saying your mother has dementia, but she may be high-risk for a massive swindle since she can't control her spending to begin with. So I'd say keep an eye on where the money is going, if possible, but you shouldn't think that you can change her spending habits at this point.
posted by ldenneau at 4:04 PM on December 1, 2008

I might put my foot down wrt her "retirement plan".

When she is no longer able to physically care for herself, it seems more than reasonable to take her in. If she needs a place to stay cause she is broke and has been wildly irresponsible with her money, then you'd be well within your rights to turn her away from your home. many parents do this with ill behaved and irresponsible adult children as "tough love".

A week or two in a homeless shelter or the humiliation of asking friends for a place to stay might be the wake up she needs. When she has shown that she can be frugal and or provide for herself, you could take her in/help her get back out on her own.

full disclosure - After I turned 18, my parents told me that id have to leave or pay rent - which in retrospect seems like a pretty fair and equitable thing to do.
posted by nihlton at 4:19 PM on December 1, 2008

Another word of warning: since it appears that your mother has, at the very least, very little control over her spending, and perhaps even an addiction problem, it would be wise to carefully monitor your own credit, especially since you live with her, and presumably she has access to your mail.

Hate to sound alarmist, but many parents use their children as sources of credit, to the childrens' great detriment later.
posted by charmcityblues at 4:21 PM on December 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

The last time my mom cheerfully me about her own "oh, we'll just move in with YOU and that great boyfriend of yours, honey!" retirement plan, I said fine, on three iron-clad conditions: 1) she and dad finally have to draw up a will and set up a trust (which they've been refusing to do as long as I've been bringing it up for the past 15+ years); 2) they will be making dinner (and providing childcare, if applicable at that point) nightly, since my boyfriend and I will no doubt have to take second jobs to afford them moving in; and 3) she can only watch FOX News in her room, with headphones.

I haven't heard a word about it since.

You, likewise, need to be as clear as you like that whatever happens, your mom cannot expect to move in with you. Beyond that, if her financial irresponsibility doesn't directly affect you, it's out of your hands. Monitor your credit like a hawk and never, ever, ever cosign on anything for her.
posted by scody at 4:29 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

A note to temper the "it's her life, it's her problem, it doesn't really affect you" angle, since there's still a lot of info that hasn't been provided:

If she dies with truckloads of debt and has already willed, or ever decides to will, stuff to the OP and his brother, those truckloads of estate debts can take priority.

[Insert standard disclaimer about lawyers, laws, and local variations thereof.]
posted by CKmtl at 4:32 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I dunno... would the advice still be her life/her choices if the OP was about the mother's addiction to meth or gambling? I see this as a bit more of a problem, I guess.

OP: I think this is hurting you, and hurting her. Because you love her, you can't just let her make her own mistakes if they're going to cause her irreparable harm, just the way you couldn't if you thought she was going to kill herself drinking. Sounds to me like she needs serious help, and fast, for her spending addiction. Not only that, but it sounds as though she's kind of derailing your life a little bit, because if you spend a great deal of your time worrying about what she's doing, lecturing her pointlessly, fretting over her purchases - well, you may just have to use a little tough love, and look after yourself a little bit more. I don't really know enough about this, but my feeling is that as long as there are no consequences to your mother's actions (ie. you continue to badger her about the spending, but don't remove yourself) then she's not going to think the behaviour is without it's rewards, or even damaging.

FWIW, and if it were my mother, I would probably limit my immediate ties with her - ie. move out and rent somewhere so that I'm not entangled in the situation so much - and get serious about sourcing some professional intervention for her. Sounds like she needs Debtors Anononymous, and her credit cards cut up. I think financial health, or lack thereof, is as big a concern from a wellbeing standpoint as anything else.
posted by lottie at 5:05 PM on December 1, 2008

How to help her?

Let her hit bottom. Until she herself sees there is a problem, nothing will change.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:12 PM on December 1, 2008

Props to the OP for not having continued the legacy of being a debtor.

Did the marriages end in large part due to her spending habits, or is she just high maintenance all around? A lot of spenders are very emotionally needy.

I wonder if there are tours available to see penniless old people in nursing homes who once were worth millions of bucks.
posted by benzenedream at 6:18 PM on December 1, 2008

Oh, and to echo the other replies - moving out should be your #1 priority. It'll help you gain some distance from the situation not to witness it continually.
posted by benzenedream at 6:19 PM on December 1, 2008

As most people have said, there's nothing you can do to change her. She doesn't want to change herself, and she's never had to deal with the consequences of her actions, so she's never had to change. Since you are not going to be able to protect your mother from her own bad choices, you have to worry about protecting yourself. Understand that any money you "loan" her will disappear and never be repaid, so when you're working, don't loan her any money. Give her a gift if she is in such dire straits that you can't bear it, but don't think you'll ever get it back, or that she'll spend it well.

Eventually, this debt will catch up with her and she'll have to declare bankruptcy. When that happens, do what you can to see that she gets credit counseling/money management training so that she can manage her money in the future. After she goes bankrupt, she is not going to be able to get credit cards; make sure she doesn't get yours. You'll need to be supportive, but also ensure that she faces the reality of what she's done and why it's happened. She will need therapy of some kind to learn to be happy with less, and you'll need to resist any desire to be angry at her for putting herself through it all. The best way to ensure that you can be supportive, and not angry, is to disentangle yourself emotionally from her mistakes; don't get so involved that when she crashes financially you feel it's a reflection on yourself, or so that she loses your money as well as hers.
posted by Dasein at 6:32 PM on December 1, 2008

seconding the financial adviser thing. the effect of hearing the truth from a disinterested professional with whom she isn't acquainted would probably be much more chilling than hearing the same from her son or daughter.

have the financial planner lay out the hard numbers: her current spending and debts (she might not realize how much her frequent expenditures add up to); the income required in order to maintain her current level of spending; and what she would be left with if she continued with this rate. make sure that s/he is taking into account all her assets and debts so that she can't continue in denial by claiming that the average retirement costs doesn't apply to her situation.

then the planner should explain the average cost of nursing care, both annually and per day. it's easier to understand how expensive it is when you hear that it costs a couple hundred bucks a day. and the projected costs only get scarier. mostly importantly, he or she should make clear what is her responsibility is. a lot of people think that medicare or medicaid will pick up the tab, but that's not true. most of the time, seniors must sell their homes and other assets and deplete all of their savings before medicare kicks in with significant benefits. also, does she have health insurance?

this might sound a bit cruel, but you could take her to various nursing homes and show her what exactly what she'd be able to afford. you could show the difference between the private, semi-private etc facilities and their various costs. a private room, decent care and a modicum of dignity come with astronomical price tags. make it clear that you simply can't afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in care, but people are living longer lives and given the rates of chronic, long term diseases and dementia, it's likely that she'd need this care like so much of the population.

she might initially respond that she will live with you and would refuse moving in any sort of assisted care facility. you should point out that simply hoping that she wont have any health problems wont protect against them, and a medical necessity can't be ignored. providing someone with the level of care they seniors deserve is a full-time, 24-hour job, and you'd need to work your own job in order to support yourself (plus possibly a family). you wouldn't want her to be neglected during the day while you are at work, and moreover, you presumably don't have the necessary training and expertise to provide medical care.

hopefully she'll be sufficiently shocked so that she's willing to listen to you and the financial adviser. come up with a savings plan and detail exactly how much she has to spend a month and what her average, necessary monthly expenses should look like. the adviser will probably encourage her to cut up the cards and she should preferably do that while she's there. the effect of hearing her financial realities might diminish, and later such measures could seem draconian.

make sure the plan she's drawn up with her adviser is workable, and that she has all the tools she needs to make it happen. this will probably mean a lot of encouragement from you, but i'm sure you'll agree that it's worth it. also, you might want to offer to pay for a few more sessions with the financial planner so she has a better chance of staying on track.
posted by buka at 6:36 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I do not think you can change your mother fast enough to help her. I would take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that your finances and credit are totally separated from hers. Do not go down with a sinking ship out of some family obligation. Also, talk with your brother. You may need to coordinate things and you may want to secretly set up some sort of plan for her retirement. I would also consider along with your brother buying some sort of health insurance policy for her now and in the future so that an illness does not break you both.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:50 PM on December 1, 2008

My mom is very similar, except she never mooched off a relative. There's nothing you can do to change her. My mom is probably going to file for bankruptcy this year. It's frustrating because I'm pretty certain she's just going to do the same thing again; she doesn't seem to understand that she would be able to buy a decent amount of stuff and be less stressed if, instead of having to pay for credit cards every month, she just saved that money and bought things when she could afford it. She wants new furniture when there's nothing wrong with hers. She wants to put hardwood floors in her house that she just got this year even though she can't afford it yet. She insists she won't be happy until she has the floors, and justifies it because it will increase the value of her house. I can't seem to get her to understand that saving up for three months or so to get that done isn't a big deal.

She also buys anything if it's on sale.

What's worse is she spends money on me when I ask her not to, and given how precarious her financial situation has gotten I just feel horrible when she does. She asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I said "nothing," because there's nothing I want or need so badly that it's worth deepening her debt. She told me that money is to enjoy and that it will work itself out, and that if she's just going to file for bankruptcy later anyway she may as well spend more.

I haven't had any success getting through that mindset.

I think this is unfair too, because children both feel compelled and are expected to help when their parents have financial problems. At least my mom would get two jobs before she'd lose her house, though, and she hasn't expressed any intentions of burdening me (even though that is a likely outcome anyway). That's incredibly unfair. Have you tried telling your mom that there's no way you're going to let her move in with you, and that it's not fair to you for her to live like she is?

I'd understand if you haven't, because I haven't been able to bring myself to do it either. I've offered to help manage her finances instead but she "doesn't want to know" what they look like, because "then I'd have to deal with it." Sometimes I want to say how unfair it is to me, because if something happens to her I'm going to be the one to pick up the pieces (only child), but she's already so stressed when we talk about money I don't have the heart. I'm hoping you'll do better than I have.

Good luck. I know it's horrible.
posted by Nattie at 6:50 PM on December 1, 2008

Wow, big hug to you OP. I think it's devastating to watch someone you love sink into a quagmire, and when you realize you can't really do the hard work for them, the hard work becomes not slipping into the pit with them. Not that you'll become loose and fast with money - you're probably quite frugal, but instead a fearful sense of powerlessness and lack of boundaries. Sometimes our parents' childishness makes us as their children grow up faster than we should. And the feelings that generates are nothing less than anxious knives to the gut.

Actually, I think that you feel it's unfair is exactly the point, because it sounds like you're struggling to maintain emotional autonomy from her actions and that you haven't considered the fact that letting her stay with you is actually an option, not a fait acompli. The fact that your question is how can you save her, rather than asking how you can save yourself implies that you don't know how to do it yet.

If you're going to college you might want to see if there is any counseling you access, or perhaps an Debtors/overspenders/shopaholics anonymous friends and family support group for you. It helps to hear the stories and coping strategies of others on a regular basis and begin to understand how to create those b
posted by anitanita at 7:22 PM on December 1, 2008

Oh, wow. This sounds just like my mom... before her unexpected stroke at a shocklngly young age that left her totally helpless and dependent on me. I have ended up paying for her financial sins a thousand times over... trashing my own finances, credit score, and life in the process of trying to get her -- now, us -- out of the hole she spent herself into.

I doubt you can change her, but feel free to bring my mom up as a "friend's mom" in whose footsteps you don't want her to follow.

Some things that happened to my mom that your mom may find daunting:

1. Humiliated in front of her friends when it came out that she couldn't afford the life she was living; went into seclusion from embarrassment.
2. Many beloved possessions had to be given up to move in with me.
3. Major loss of autonomy by moving in with me; forced to depend on me for everything.
4. Had to watch as her daughter went from a successful, well-off professional to living in poverty, working constantly, struggling to make ends meet and having to give up her dreams... and knowing it was her fault.
5. Having to live in poverty *with* me and giving up huge numbers of creature comforts while I pay off her debt.
6. Received substandard medical care due to not having health insurance.
7. Further embarrassment of social services getting involved, having her finances vetted, having her bad judgement held up in front of her.

My mom is basically miserable now, despite my best efforts and all the Zoloft she can eat. Like you, I tried to change her before it was too late, but it just didn't work.

There is some stuff you can do that I didn't know to do, though. If she's working on and off, make sure she's worked "on" enough to qualify for social security when the crap hits the fan. My mom didn't, and it meant we couldn't get her help she really needed.

If she can possibly afford it, have her get health insurance. If you can afford it, it might be worth getting it for her.

Get yourself as stable as you can. Build up a fund if at all possible so that if you do get blindsided like I did, you have a safety net of your own.

I'm so sorry you're in this situation, and I hope everything works out for the best.
posted by Gianna at 8:39 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Gianna, that's an awful story, I'm sorry to hear it. I have an honest question - why did you have to pay off your mother's debts? Why couldn't you have her declare bankruptcy? I'm both curious, and it may be relevant to the OP's situation.
posted by Dasein at 10:29 PM on December 1, 2008

Would it be helpful to start a little savings account/investment account for your mom now? Set aside $10-$50 per paycheck and keep it a secret. If your mom refuses to learn anything, you'll have a small fund to give her as needed, or to bail her out in case of emergency. Good on you for planning ahead.
posted by bendy at 2:09 AM on December 3, 2008

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