February 9, 2012 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out how to deal with my parents' financial situation and my mental health.

Some background before I get to my questions:

My parents are in their late 60's and collecting social security. My father still works, sort of, but apparently hasn't been paid in quite some time. My mother supplements their income with things like babysitting jobs.

I am the middle of 3 children, all of whom are in their 30's and 40's. My 2 siblings are married and I am in a long-term live-in relationship. My siblings are renters (one in a place with a very high cost of living) and my partner and I are homeowners. My siblings and their spouses make about half the money my partner and I do, but significantly more money than our parents. My partner is planning to retire this year, so I am expecting our income to go down, but it will still be higher than my siblings' income.

The sibling who lives in the place with a high cost of living has a small child, so they have child-related expenses. My other sibling lives near our parents and me, so our cost of living is comparable other than the fact that my expenses are higher because of my owning a house. The oldest sibling and spouse lived with our parents (rent and expense free) up until about 3 years ago. That sibling has student loan debt of an unknown amount, but I'm guessing it's probably around 50k.

Over the past several years, I have been periodically asked to send money to our parents. The first time was several years ago and I was asked by our father. The next time was 3 years ago when my sibling moved out of our parents' house. At that time my sibling told the other sibling and me that our parents were going to need ongoing financial contributions from the 3 of us. That sibling implied that we were going to have to cover the subsidizing that sibling had previously done (which I later learned was non-existent). I gave our parents the amount of money recommended by my sibling, in a single lump sum sufficient to cover my 1/3 of the total contribution for the year. I did this to allow my other siblings some breathing room to come up with their contributions. Neither of my siblings contributed. The most recent time was about a month ago. I was called by another relative and told in confidence that our parents were behind on their bills and I needed to help out. I sent them some more money and engaged my siblings to try to figure out what was going on.

I wanted to have a serious talk with our parents (without my siblings because I didn't want our parents to feel ganged up on) about their finances so that I could do my own financial planning. My siblings talked me out of that. The youngest sibling talked to our mother in a very general way and was assured that they are fine financially. The oldest sibling was supposed to talk to our father last week, but hasn't done so yet and didn't bother to inform that their discussion hadn't happened.

The thing that makes this so emotionally challenging for me is that my parents are much, much closer to my siblings than they are to me. They all have a shared fundamentalist religion (although my youngest sibling is quietly inactive in it at this point) and I am an atheist. Both of my siblings have lived with our parents at different times as adults and have received financial assistance in that way. I have not. The oldest sibling has received the most financial assistance.

I feel that if our parents have the need for financial assistance, it should be shared among their 3 children, particularly since 2 of the 3 of us have received financial assistance from them in the past. This has not happened. I resent that I, the somewhat cast out child, am the one apparently expected to carry this burden alone. I should note that I believe the youngest sibling is willing to help out, but for whatever reason hasn't so far. I understand that my siblings are in a worse financial position than I am, but it seems unfair to me that they apparently make no financial contributions at all and that one of them cannot even be bothered to keep me informed about the status of the plan they talked me into. I also think it's unfair that despite my being the only one who provides any financial assistance, I'm still apparently the least favored child (although I do know that my parents love me).

My questions, FINALLY:

1. How do I get my siblings to pony up? I do not want to shame my siblings into participating; I want them to participate because we all share this responsibility. I love my siblings and don't want them to feel bad, but at this point, I feel as though I'm being used -- though I'm sure it's inadvertent on their parts.

2. How do I approach our parents about their financial situation? I don't really believe it's any of my business, but I don't like being hit up for thousands of dollars at random. I am sure our parents don't think it's any of my business, either. I do not want to make them feel bad about any of this. I do not intend to bring up the lack of participation by my siblings, but I'm sure they realize that only one child ever gives them any money.

3. How do I deal with all of the bad feelings I have about this? Before you suggest therapy, be advised that I have an appointment with one next week.

Thanks for reading and sorry this was so long.
posted by sock bandia to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You urgently need to work on separating money from love. Your question makes it clear there is a degree to which you are hoping to buy your parents' esteem and affection with your financial contribution, and this will never happen. Money simply does not function on an emotional level that way.

You sort out with your siblings what each party can afford, and then you take that offer to your parents as a group. You do not babysit one another's obligations from that point forward, and you do not turn it into a contest or point scoring exercise. You also stop looking back, counting free rent as financial assistance you can quantify, and stop allotting points for that, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:39 AM on February 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

Talk to your siblings stating how this is affecting you financially and that you feel it is fair that they contribute some money to help your parents. If they aren't able to pay their share (whether it's equal to your amount or something equitable for their income), then you need to have a financial discussion with your parents about the realities of the situation so both you and your parents can plan appropriately.

In terms of talking to your parents. There are three issues to discuss here.

1. Timing - They need to give you more time to plan appropriately or discuss why they haven't been giving you time to plan.
2. Amount - Their financial situation is their business, but it also becomes yours when you start contributing to their finances. I know this is awkward, but it's important to understand what this money is going towards so you can plan better.
3. Duration - How long will this continue? Is there any plan to become self-sufficient?

I would talk to siblings first and parents following that.
posted by seppyk at 9:42 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm going to start with question 2:

I would approach this as a wait and see, if you're asked to contribute again you are perfectly able to ask for an overview of what the situation is. This isn't something that's just going to all of the sudden change where you assistance won't be needed. If they need assistance now, it's likely they will need it again in the future and it's best you know what you're getting in to. You do have to be gentle but it can easily and I think very much be a condition of your support. It's your business when you're asked to make it your business by helping out.

For question 1:

I think you need the data in question 2 to decide what to really do. If the financial situation is parents not living within their means, but their means are adequate it might be as simple as getting emotional support to talk to them about what is going on, or at least to be supportive of you. I'd be frank with them, you don't think that supporting your parents is a you specific function and it's going to need to be on all of you and your parents are going to need to understand and accept what the responsibilities between the three of you are. In my experience when these things fester and are just sort of dealt with they just get worse.

For question3:

I think talking about it and not dancing around it. I'm the oldest of 5, the parental interaction thing even today well in to my 30's is something we're still trying to work with, with brothers and sisters being treated remarkably differently. It takes lost of patience and a lot of talking about it when people are well rested and thinking clearly. It's hard, and I think the hardest part is we all just fall in to our old patterns and expectations and that often doesn't work when you're older.

So in summary, I think if you're being asked to contribute financially, you have the right to ask to see what's being done with money behind the scenes. It's totally reasonable, but probably going to be a bit of a pill to swallow for your parents, that role reversal is tough. It might make sense to ask them to concede to a a 3rd party financial planner who can go through the stuff unemotionally and then let you guys in to the situation when it's done, just to avoid that trap.
posted by iamabot at 9:45 AM on February 9, 2012

If your siblings make half as much money as you do, it's quite possible they really just can't afford to support your parents. In my mind, the trick is not to get them to pony up, but to stop feeling like you have to let your siblings order you around. Your money is yours, and your parents' finances absolutely are your business if you're being made to feel that they'll be living on the street without your contribution. I would take the non-contributing siblings out of this equation completely. If you want to help your parents, fine - but it is NOT a requirement and certainly not if you aren't even communicating with them directly on what they need. Talk to your parents, now, and stop talking to your siblings about this.

I would also suggest that you're allowing your family to emotionally manipulate you to a pretty significant degree. It's clear you feel like this is something you have no choice but to do. You do have a choice. This is your money. Yours! Your family doesn't get to tell you what to do with it. I can tell you right now that I have an excellent relationship with my mother and she would exhaust every possible option before asking me or my sister for money; it is wildly inappropriate in my eyes that your siblings are inserting themselves into this situation which, if it exists at all, should be completely between you and your parents.
posted by something something at 9:46 AM on February 9, 2012 [12 favorites]

I don't really believe it's any of my business, but I don't like being hit up for thousands of dollars at random.

Here is the disconnect. It is your business, they cash the checks right? The next time you are hit up for thousands of dollars, you have to make your concerns known. You can give the money but only after you have been able to get a financial picture so you can be sure your money is helping where it is necessary.
posted by Busmick at 9:56 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Care taking of parents is never divided evenly.

Some people are able to contribute more cash. Some more time.

Some, due to circumstances beyond their own control, can't do either.

Don't give if you can't --- whether it's money or time. Don't give if you don't want to --- whether it's money or time.

And don't expect your siblings to do either, either. And they shouldn't expect it of you.
posted by zizzle at 10:04 AM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would strongly recommend engaging the services of a mediator to keep this very hot button cool. Get that person up to speed, have the mediator meet with the siblings separately, and then everybody comes together and gets on the same page, commits, and delivers the consensus to parents.
posted by thinkpiece at 10:07 AM on February 9, 2012

I agree with Darlingbri about your emotional approach to this. I think it's great that you're going to talk this over with a therapist because combining money and family is hard even in the best of circumstances. I have a practical suggestion, for now. I think that, rather than trying to coordinate with your siblings, you should be working directly with your parents--and it surely is your business if they've asked you for help in the past and are likely to ask again. I'd say something like:

I've been happy to help you out financially in the past, and am willing to continue helping you when you need it. However, Partner and I are doing some financial planning to anticipate Partner's retirement this year and the resulting drop in our income. If you need our help, it won't be as easy for us to simply write you a check as it has been in the past. So, I'd like to talk about planning ahead.

I think that the two of you should meet with a financial planner to discuss long-term financial goals and security. Sibling1, Sibling2, and I can be there, or not, depending on your preference. Once you have a clear picture of your current financial situation and your plans for the future, I think we should discuss what you might need in terms of financial assistance from Sibling1, Sibling2, and me. I think it's important to include Sibling1 and Sibling2 in that conversation, to make sure we're all on the same page about your needs and our commitments to you.

Whatever you decide to do in terms of financial planning, I need you to understand that Partner and I are making financial decisions now that might impact our ability to help you later.

Being in a more comfortable financial position than your siblings and being willing to support your parents means you'll probably end up paying more than them--maybe even more than your "fair share." However, planning ahead, and planning in partnership with your parents as well as your siblings, means that when the time comes that your parents need help, you can say, "Here's the money we started setting aside back in 2012 when we all sat down and planned for this, and these are the details of how we planned to use the money..." If you've already said that you and your partner can give $A or do B, and your siblings have committed to give $C or do D, all you need to do is live up to your commitment. That doesn't protect you from the heartache of this family drama--siblings not keeping their word, parents playing favorites--but it is a place to sort of anchor your sanity: I said I'd do this, I'm keeping my word; I can't control what other people do or say about it.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:23 AM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

Tell them that you will do matching funds. If they pony up x, you will likewise do x. Set some boundaries if you need to, but last time they acted in bad faith by asking you to put in 1/3 and didn't contribute anything. Use an escrow service if needed, but get them to pony up first this time.
posted by dgran at 11:07 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

We have a similar situation with my wife and her parents. The sibling situation is a bit different since they are young and not yet able to contribute financially, though they understand they will have to in the coming years.

Addressing your #2, the only thing that has worked for us is to decide how much we can afford and just give that to her parents monthly. This avoids the random hitting up for cash, and lets the parents plan their spending around a regular contribution. With this comes the understanding that no additional money will be given.

So far, this has worked very well, the best part being that we deliberately avoid looking hard into their spending and budget priorities, something which caused terrible tension on both sides beforehand.
posted by gimletbiggles at 11:28 AM on February 9, 2012

It sounds as if your siblings and parents have a strange relationship with money. Your siblings and relatives DO NOT have a say in what you should contribute financially to your parents, period. When your siblings say they will contribute, that is a moot point. They use that to coerce you into contributing.

If your parents are unwilling to discuss financial planning with the money you give them, don't fight it. What you do for you and your partner for your own financial planning is to figure an amount that you're both comfortable writing off as a loss. The moment you give your parents that money, you basically have no control over where it goes, no matter how much you try to help them plan. They are not interested in being financially savvy.
posted by mlo at 11:44 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. How do I get my siblings to pony up? I do not want to shame my siblings into participating; I want them to participate because we all share this responsibility…

You cannot control the actions of your siblings. You cannot change how your siblings feel or their motivations for doing things. I know you want to, and I suspect that you believe that if you can just frame your argument correctly, your siblings will fall in line and everything will be great. This probably is not the case, and your siblings’ past behavior doesn’t really suggest to me that this is likely to happen.

You and your SO need to decide, together, what you are willing and able to do to assist your parents. You’re not required to do anything. This is a voluntary kindness on your part. You have choices about this. Try to make the decision with the assumption that no one else will be helping. Decide a maximum amount of resources (time, money, whatever) you can put towards helping your parents without overburdening yourself or feeling resentful.

Remember that you can always change your mind later, and do more or less—but also remember that this is still your decision. You don’t need to justify it to anyone besides yourself and your SO.

2. How do I approach our parents…

If you determine that you are willing and able to financially assist your parents (remember, this is a choice! you don’t have to!), it may be best to just approach them directly and be clear. Something like “Mom & Dad, I’ve had you, Sibling, and Relative unexpectedly ask me for financial help for the two of you on different occasions in the last few years. Partner and I aren’t comfortable with these unexpected financial demands, and we’ve decided… (whatever you’ve decided here—we’ll pay for a financial planner to work with you to set up a sustainable budget for you to follow, we’re willing to give you $xx to supplement your income monthly/yearly, we’ll pay X bills, whatever).”

I don’t know what kind of relationship you have with your parents—if they tend to argue or guilt or manipulate—but I tend to feel like it’s better not to justify your decision in cases like this. If you state your reasons (e.g. “…because Partner’s impending retirement will reduce our income”). Reasons why just give people a handle to argue with you if they want to (e.g. “But you still have a higher income than so-and-so, surely you can cover more!”). It’s simpler and easier to enforce your boundaries if you just state them and simply refuse to make it an argument. You’re not being convinced into doing anything, you’re stating a decision that you have already made. Like so:

You: We’ve decided to do X.
Other: But why can’t you do ABC too? What about (etc etc etc reasons why they think you should do ABC)?
You: I’m sorry, that’s not possible. We’ve decided to do X. We can do X, and that is all.
Other: But why…?
You: Because we’ve decided we can do X.
(repeat as needed)

This is not a punishment. You’re not being selfish or mean, you’re being generous, and you’re setting sane and reasonable boundaries to prevent yourself from getting taken advantage of. You’re doing this because, among other things, you don’t want resentment to poison your relationships with your parents and siblings. That is not wrong—in fact, it’s a good thing.

I would not necessarily assume your parents know that you’re the only person who has been assisting them financially. I hope I’m wrong about that, but… well, family and finances is a tricky area, and people often act in ways that are much less respectful and fair than you would want.

3. How do I deal with all of the bad feelings I have about this? Before you suggest therapy, be advised that I have an appointment with one next week.

Therapy. You need to talk about boundaries, how to set them how to enforce them, and, probably, how to deal with the fact that you feel guilty about doing so. It’s not a bad thing to set boundaries—it’s a good thing, and it’s what makes it possible for people to be generous and giving without being resentful and bitter. But it’s a challenging skill to learn. You will probably benefit from professional guidance, so it’s good you have an appointment.

Best of luck. Family situations are very difficult, and you really sound like you're trying to be generous and assume the best motives from everyone involved. That's laudable and good of you, but you do need to watch out for your own best interests too. Your parents love you. You don't need to prove it, and you don't need to use money to secure anyone's affection.
posted by Kpele at 2:55 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

1st, assess your parents' expenses and assets, if any. They may be paying too much for things, or strapped because they give to charities, etc. They might be giving money to 1 or more siblings. They may be eligible for a reverse mortgage on their home (I don't know if this is a good idea, or not.) They may have investments with fee-charging companies who are pretty much robbing them. You may be able to help them establish a realistic budget that includes gifts to grandchildren, and a comfortable standard of living.

They have Social Security, maybe some pension income, and maybe some investments. Look at it, or get a financial adviser(one you pay a fee to) to look at this, and make recommendations for the most stable/best return.

How about taking over some of your parents' bills? If the fuel oil bill is a hardship for them because it's a big lump of money due in winter, you could just take it on.

I recommend you contribute as much as you choose to, in a manner that is most effective for your parents. You can't control how much the others contribute, but if siblings call you to ask for more, you can just say you've investigated the finances and are contributing what you feel is appropriate. Then stop talking. If you are pressured to give more, calmly repeat that you've investigated the finances and are contributing what you feel is appropriate. You can add that you're happy to do so, and say that perhaps other siblings could contribute. O good way to say 'No,' if you're having a hard time, is to be extra cordial, and repeat the same sentences.

It's not unreasonable to ask your parents about their will. If they leave most of their assets to the other 2, will you be terribly upset?

Money and emotions do get tangled up, and your frustration is reasonable. But you can't make the others be reasonable. You're being a generous child, which is a very fine thing. Well done, you.
posted by theora55 at 4:12 PM on February 9, 2012

I'm sorry. This sounds absolutely crazy-making for you.

First of all, you don't have to give anything that you feel you can't afford. You certainly don't have to give the amounts your siblings or any other relatives demand. Your family (partner) and household come first. You need to have savings and plan for a retirement so as not to be in the same situation your parents are in later. You earn what you have, pay your bills, and act in a fiscally responsible way, and there is no reason you should be short in your budget on the say-so of a third party (siblings) when you are not completely sure it's necessary or where the money is going.

Given that your parents are on a fixed income with your mother baby-sitting, it sounds like they probably do need a hand occasionally. It's a good thing to help your parents out, but what you give and what your siblings give have nothing to do with each other. You need to be giving voluntary, not being pressured into it by guilt, and you need to give what you can afford, not what your siblings, or even your parents think you should.

The onus is not on you to support your parents or to carry a burden, but if you can help them to a certain degree, I certainly would, simply because they are your parents. I would suggest thought that rather than give them a lump sum, you help them out with a fixed amount each month. Paying their phone bill, or putting x amount of dollars into their power bill assists all of you in budgeting your money. A direct payment would simplify things for you, and your parents. Also, if there's any question about who's doing what or what's getting paid, you know that there can be no dispute about your contribution. If this isn't acceptable to you or your parents, then a check in the same monthly amount would allow for both parties' budgeting concerns.

Frankly, I think you have every right to be included in your parents' financial affairs and be privy to their budget if you are giving them substantial amounts of money or money on a repeated basis. Your parents have no right to hit you up for payments of thousands of dollars out of the blue. If they are doing that, one of two things is happening: either they don't have or are not sticking to a budget, or there has been some emergency or unforeseen expense. You're entitled to know about these things if it significantly impacts your financial situation.

Your parents need to accept responsibility for their monetary affairs. That means they participate with you in a discussion of their needs and expenses. They need to be the ones coming to you with a request for assistance, rather than your siblings or another relative requesting money from you. You say your Dad's employed, but not being paid on a regular basis. He needs to do something about this, whether it's talk to his employer or look for somewhere else to work. Also, if they're having that much trouble meeting bills, someone needs to work with them to find out if they're eligible for any kind of assistance programs or mitigation on power bills, etc. Even assistance from a church or feedbank might help the situation. If they need to repeatedly ask you for bailouts, perhaps it's time for a change in their living situation--do they own their house, is it paid off, would it be possible to rent somewhere cheaper, etc. Are there unexpected medical bills and no insurance?

I certainly agree that you need to act through a credit counselor, financial adviser, or mediator to do this. "Mom, Dad, I want to help you out and we're going to go see someone we can work with to help us figure out the best way to do that." Your investment in a professional will keep the discussion focused and unemotional.

If you don't think that you need to know or they won't want to discuss it with you, then I'd suggest you seriously think hard what your investment in this will be. How much are you comfortable giving them every month/each year? Will you allow them to come to you requesting a significant amount at one time if it's a stated expense (furnace blows up, unexpected medical bill.) What happens if they just ask you for several thousand dollars for a vague or unexplained reason? (Just... the bills.)

You need to stop going through your siblings and accepting what they're telling you. It's great if sibs can cooperate, but it sounds like you're not getting the complete story here, and may even be getting snowed on what's going on. Implying that your sibling was assisting financially while living at home, and telling you they each would be contributing a third financially and then not following through smacks of actually lying in the situation. Stop thinking about what they are giving your parents. What they give them financially is up to them, just as what you give is up to you.

I hope for all your sakes this doesn't end up in a big family drama and hard feelings. Money can do that. Your only hope is to walk the path you feel is best for you in this situation. At the end of the day, they are your parents, you love them, and they love you. For your own peace of mind, you need to help them, but they are not your burden to carry.

Finally, I think you're going to have to put everything in the past out of your mind. Your relationship is what it is. On that basis, you decide whether or not, or how much, you want to give to your parents financially and emotionally. Once you make a decision on exactly how much you are willing to give, irrespective of your siblings' contributions, I think you'll feel better about the situation. Get your partner's input. Make an informed decision, and stand by it. Don't allow anyone to second guess you or guilt you into more. I hope your therapist can help you with the issues of separating money from love and love from guilt. Good luck.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:39 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm in sort of a similar situation, and I think a big component of it is this: if your siblings know you make 2x what they do, as far as they are concerned, you are a millionaire. You've got the money, they don't, you should pony up. Is what they are thinking.

Give what you want, for your reasons, and don't worry about what the other ones do.
posted by gjc at 7:23 PM on February 9, 2012

I am seconding BlueHorse's suggestion of paying bills for them rather than giving them money. You get to decide how you want to help them.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:59 PM on February 9, 2012

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