Money issues with family
May 7, 2012 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Can you shed some light on this situation with my mom and her hints about her financial situation?

I had a good childhood. The only blip was hearing my parents fight about money. My mom had a terrible childhood - poor, abused, bounced around foster care. She was struggling terribly with a small child (my half-sister) when she married my dad, who wasn't wealthy but was doing well in his career.

My mom stayed at home while I was growing up and there were constant fights: I heard from my dad how my mom wiped out the checking account on shopping sprees. I heard from my mom how my dad was stingy with the everyday money and never gave her enough for groceries/bills/etc. I know this was inappropriate for them to be discussing with me. I don't know what the accurate money situation was and as I got older, recognized that this wasn't my business, even if they both tried to make it my business. Knowing both of my parents as I do (who have been nothing but loving to me, but less than loving to each other), I imagine there's a little truth in both sides.

I was on and off ill during my 20s. I worked when I could, but often couldn't and my parents supported me well into my late 20s. They did so generously, willingly and without restrictions or rules. They took care of me completely and supported me. I'm well now, and I survived that period of my life because my parents were so helpful and supportive. I was lucky.

My dad is retired, but receives a generous pension from his job. My mom now works full-time at a job that pays just OK (more than enough to live on, but not enough for what she does). A lot of my mom's money has gone to support my half-sister, who is much older than me and went through a long period of drug abuse and jail time. My sister is also doing well, but is living at home and my mom's bank account is still recovering from all the money she poured into helping my sister get out of trouble. (My dad was the one who foot the bill for me when I was sick - all checks came from him.)

My mom has hinted that my dad did not help with my sister, as he doesn't consider my half-sister to be his "real" child (there's a long backstory on this).

My mom has also said that she and my dad have separate accounts now, and don't share money. (My mom is the talker; my dad is not and is uncomfortable with conversations beyond simple niceties, so I only have my mom's info to go on.)

After years of struggling, I'm finally employed at a job that pays me well. I don't make a ton of money (though it seems like a ton to me) and make just slightly more than my mom does.

Ever since I landed this job, my mom has started hinting that she's broke. I gladly paid for her plane ticket to visit me last year (my parents live across the country) and other things here and there. However, she's now hinting very passive-aggressively that she's very broke and hates her job and would like to retire, but she can't because she has no money. (She's a few years from retirement age.) She once again said she would like to visit me, but has no money. I am happy to pay for tickets to visit me, and all the other treats involved, but I don't have enough money to pay for a retirement.

I don't know what to do with this information. My parents live a nice, middle-class lifestyle with nice cars and a nice house. I know my dad has a lot of money from his pension and lives comfortably.

However, I also know that my mom is low on money because of my sisters' troubles. I don't make enough to help my mom the way she's asking, but I feel guilty and confused about this situation. My parents selflessly helped me when I was sick, beyond what parents should probably do for adult children.

I feel like it's time for me to help my mom in the same way she helped me, but I can't really figure out what's going on. Any questions I've asked about my dad's money have been shut down with, "He won't help me," and the conversation ends there. So what I see is my mom hinting that she needs money and I understand that she doesn't want to ask my dad because that would start a fight, but I also feel uncomfortable that I'm barely back on my feet, just beginning to support myself and that it seems like my mom is expecting me to give her money so she can avoid a fight with my dad.

I love my parents. They're in their mid-60s (mom) and late '70s (dad), and I plan to move closer in the next few years to be near them in their old age. I feel indebted to them and want to help. But I have the nagging feeling my mom is just using me to avoid a fight with my dad about money, and once again, I'm that 8-year-old in the middle of their money fights.

How would you handle this, Metafilter? Am I being a selfish kid that just needs to help a mom who helped me so much? Am I being manipulated?

Other relavent info: I'm now in my 30s. My parents are still married and live in the same house together. I understand that their money/relationship issues are not my problem, but my mom is my mom and I need to make sure she's taken care of.

Did I make a therapy appointment? Oh god, you bet I did. I'm looking for some strategies/clarity in the meantime. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So... is sitting down to dinner with both of them and bringing it up an option?

Pass the ketchup. So Mom says she has no retirement money. What's up with that? Oh, by the way, I rented a hotel room for the night but do you want to go out for brunch tomorrow?

I have no patience for hints because in my family they're just used to jerk people around by the nose and have only the passing-est relation to truth.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:53 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

My parents selflessly helped me when I was sick, beyond what parents should probably do for adult children.

But they probably wouldn't have just handed you money in reply to vague hints, right? I am assuming you were sick, you got a diagnosis from a doctor, you had medical bills which they paid for directly, prescriptions that they paid for, maybe you had health insurance that they paid for. They paid for your food, they paid for your share of utilities. And maybe they paid for you to go back to school or get retrained somehow. Very tangible, specific, and well-defined things like that right?

And it sounds like they did not go into debt or do themselves severe financial harm, given as you say they have a nice lifestyle with nice cars and a nice house, etc.

So IMO it should be the same here. Can you tell your mom, "If you need help retiring I would be happy to sit down with you and dad, go over the numbers together, and come up with ways that I can help." Ways that you can help doesn't include putting yourself into financial distress, or making your own financial goals severely difficult, etc.

Then if she starts dodging or dropping passive aggressive hints you can just say, "Okay, just let me know when you would like me to sit down with you guys."
posted by cairdeas at 3:55 PM on May 7, 2012 [25 favorites]

I would skip the dinner and have a meeting with an estate planner.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:56 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is your dad's job.
posted by oh posey at 4:02 PM on May 7, 2012 [15 favorites]

I have been directly asked for money by one parent. I gave it the first time I was asked--I did not the second and third and fourth time for reasons similar to what you are describing. I have a lot more to say about this privately if you want to memail me.

That said, if your mom is just dropping passive aggressive hints, try as you might to ignore her. She is an adult who can ask for things directly if need be. And in the meantime, you are free to have no guilt over this. She is your parent, you are not hers.
posted by murrey at 4:03 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with oh posey. I think it's your dad's responsibility to look after his own wife - but it comes across like he's not prepared to do that.
posted by Fairisle at 4:05 PM on May 7, 2012

On preview, I eventually did exactly what cairdeas wisely recommended and I was never asked for money again by my parent. Do that!
posted by murrey at 4:06 PM on May 7, 2012

Ever since I landed this job, my mom has started hinting that she's broke.

Wait, so does your mother know how much you earn? Because as you said, it's inappropriate for your parents to talk to you about their financial situation (certain circumstances excepted). But it's also none of their business how much you earn. Anything beyond "I'm doing ok, glad to finally not be living off ramen" isn't necessary.

she's now hinting very passive-aggressively that she's very broke and hates her job and would like to retire, but she can't because she has no money.

Reply with a noncommittal "there, there" response and change the subject. If she's hinting, then she's not asking, and you don't have to answer a question she doesn't ask. If she ever comes out and asks you to fund her retirement, then you can say "sorry but I don't earn enough to support anyone else."

If you want to pay for her to visit, then offer that when you want to offer it, not in response to her hints. "Mom, it was so much fun when you visited last year, I'd love to book you another flight so you could come again. How's the second week in July for you?"

I feel like it's time for me to help my mom in the same way she helped me, but I can't really figure out what's going on.

Your mother is capable of earning a salary and managing her budget. If she were disabled then things would be different, but she isn't.

Any questions I've asked about my dad's money have been shut down with, "He won't help me," and the conversation ends there.

Stop asking about your parents' financial situation. They are adults and so are you, with separate financial lives and budgets, and each of you responsible for yourselves.

I understand that their money/relationship issues are not my problem, but my mom is my mom and I need to make sure she's taken care of.

There may come a time when your mother needs someone else to make sure she isn't homeless and eating cat food. Now is not that time.
posted by headnsouth at 4:11 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

You don't "owe" your mom a retirement. You've said that she works full time and she is not yet at retirement age. It sounds like she's doing fine, and it's inappropriate of her to hint that you should be funding her retirement. I would just wait until she flat out asks you for money, and then tell her that you really can't afford it (since it sounds like you can't).
posted by barnoley at 4:18 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

So, your father doesn't consider your half-sister, who was a child when your parents married, to be his responsibility, and continues even to this day to blatantly and obviously mark you as his favorite through his financial choices; your mother and father had "constant fights," frequently overshared about their relationship when you were a child and even tried to put you in the middle of their financial battle, and you had a good childhood?

Your parents obviously love you. They worked to give you a good life and have been generous to you in times of need. But the emotional environment they have created in the family sounds, to be blunt, all sorts of fucked up.

It is not your job to resolve your parents' dispute over retirement funds. Repeat that to yourself. It is not your job. It is not your job. They've been trying to use you as a mediator since you were a kid but it is not your job.

If your parents were to confess that they were in real financial trouble -- not able to pay bills, about to lose their home, etc. -- that would be the time to help them with whatever reasonable financial support you can spare. If your parents were to divorce and it seemed like your mother was really struggling, it would be appropriate to help her then, as well.

But it seems that at the moment your father is sitting on a pile of retirement cash and for reasons you don't understand is not allowing your mother unfettered access to it. Maybe it's because she's an irresponsible spender. Maybe it's because he's a selfish tightwad who doesn't understand the concept of shared marital property. Maybe it's a bit of both. But that is their problem to solve, not yours.

The next time your mother brings this up, maybe you could suggest couple's counseling.
posted by BlueJae at 4:18 PM on May 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

You should tell your mother that you're willing to sit down with her, your father, and an accountant to have some frank talks about exactly who has what, and what sort of options exist for her/their retirement.

Seriously, you should not give her another cent for ANYTHING until this happens. Fortunately, I'll bet that she'd do anything to avoid it, so it will probably let you right off the hook.
posted by hermitosis at 4:36 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

It was inappropriate for your either of your parents to drag you into their financial fights when you were a kid, and it's inappropriate for your mom to try to drag you into her financial fights now.

Look, as you say, you may be making "slightly more than" your mom now, BUT: her living costs (mortgage and all the rest) are split in half, what with your father's income/pension in there paying bills, too --- you, on the other hand, are paying your full costs. And don't forget that you're only hearing HER side of things; you DO NOT have your father's side of the argument (nor do you want it!), and therefore you do not know the full, true situation. Maybe she's broke; maybe your father is stingy with 'his' money; maybe, just maybe!, she's spending all her money on your sister; maybe she's a spendthrift who blames everyone else for her problems. YOU DON'T KNOW THE TRUTH. So basically: your mother says she chooses to spend all her money on your sister, and therefore she's broke and unable to retire.


As wonderful as it was that they helped you out so much, I'd really recommend you don't get involved.
posted by easily confused at 4:47 PM on May 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

It's your mother's job to take care of herself ultimately. I don't know why your parents have the relationship they do. But they do and you really can't do anything about it.

I know you care about her, but I'd wager that it's something your father tried to do long ago and then gave up on.

Don't give her money and don't get involved.
posted by inturnaround at 4:54 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would tell my dad. Very briefly. And then let them figure it out without me.
posted by Maarika at 4:58 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really don't think you should get involved at all. You don't really know the whole situation, and you shouldn't, unless your mother has some basic need that isn't or can't be met. This is between your parents. I would stop asking mom about dad's money. I would not mention this to dad at all. I seriously would stay as out of this as possible - it sounds like a recipe for drama.

You should tell your mother that it makes you uncomfortable when she tries to involve you in her finances and if you like, you can add in that you are not in a good financial place to support her in any way at this time.
posted by sm1tten at 5:01 PM on May 7, 2012

Wait, so does your mother know how much you earn? Because as you said, it's inappropriate for your parents to talk to you about their financial situation (certain circumstances excepted). But it's also none of their business how much you earn.

This varies tremendously by culture, even families that have been several generations American.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:03 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

And your responses are going to go with social norms of the culture of the answerers. I suppose that's obvious, but isn't obvious is how many zillions of "right" answers there are to this question. You will have to figure out what's appropriate for you.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:04 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your sister, regardless of how your dad feels about her parentage, is also in financial trouble because of her own actions, so it's not totally unreasonable for him to not want to support her indefinitely. Your mom may have made the decision to offer her help. If that's what your mom has decided to do with her money, great, that's her own decision. It is not your responsibility to provide extra luxuries to your mother when she's opted to spend her money on your sister instead.

Your parents made sure there was a roof over your head during rough times. Is there a real, significant possibility that your parents will go without sustenance or shelter because of this? If that happened, I'd write a check without blinking. But it doesn't seem like that's likely to happen. Your mom would just like to live more comfortably than she is. If your mom couldn't afford groceries, do you really think she'd be asking you for cash instead of your dad, who would no doubt have noticed the lack of food in the pantry at the time?

If your sister is now doing well, she should either be moving out or contributing to the household finances. If she's doing neither and your mother is still arranging to support her, that's not your problem. That's between your parents and your sister. The fact that they helped support you at some point is not relevant; that wasn't a loan that you were to be expected to pay back later. Nor will it be a loan if at some point you help them when they are desperately in need themselves. Until then, don't start putting cash into this situation, because all it will really work out to is you paying your sister's rent for no good reason.
posted by gracedissolved at 5:15 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

For most of this question I assumed your parents were divorced. They may not share accounts, but legally their finances are still each others' problem. You can recommend that your parents see an accountant or a financial planner, but after that it's really up to them.
posted by that's how you get ants at 5:17 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want to be generous, treat one or both of them to a session or sessions with a fee-paid financial planner.

I know I say this all the time, but the thing about putting the oxygen mask on yourself before you try to help others is really true. It sounds like you would be willing to help your mother with a specific request or requests, but she's trying to guilt you into promising her the world financially.

It just sounds like her desired endgame is for you to say "Oh, I'll take care of you no matter what happens, Mom" and it sounds like you very understandably don't want to do that. Depending on your family dynamics, maybe you need to make that clear as well, but it would probably be very helpful to make it possible for her (and/or your Dad) to sit down with a professional and come up with a set of plans and strategies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:22 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the only circumstance in which you might feel an obligation here is if you consider their financial help when you were sick as a loan rather than a gift. If so, or if you want to choose to see it that way now (in order to set some boundaries around what you are prepared to give your mother), you could work out a plan for paying it back gradually. But I don't think you should feel like you are on the hook for long-term support beyond that, especially given that your father has plenty of money and your parents are not estranged from each other. (I don't really understand a relationship where one member of the couple is going without comforts and the other is not, but I know other people have different ways of arranging their lives.)
posted by lollusc at 5:30 PM on May 7, 2012

Regardless of all the surrounding information, I would not at this point support your mother while she is under retirement age and still capable of earning enough to take care of herself. More and more parents need help from their adult children in their "old-old" age. Save your money now, in case when she is elderly and cannot work, she needs your support. Imagine if you supported her now so she could retire early and buy more things, and then could not afford to pay for high-quality hospice care at the end of her life.

But yeah, when I worked as an attorney in wills and estates and so on, I always urged parents to tell their adult children what was up, and I'd urge you not to get involved at all without a clear picture. It's certainly a difficult conversation to have for many families in the U.S. (if you're in the U.S.), but it is absolutely an appropriate conversation to have as your parents get older and you become an adult, especially if they want you to support them in any way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:33 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're not being asked to support your mother, you are being asked to support your half sister by proxy. That is a big difference. Plus, as you pointed out, your father gave you the money when you needed it. Pay him back if you feel guilty or something.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:06 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Send her a copy of Dave Ramsey's book. Then remind yourself that your parents are married and their finances are not your business as long as they are eating and have a roof over their heads.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:46 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is largely about managing your own guilt, right? Since you feel so obligated, why don't you add up what you think you owe and prepare to pay it back? You lived with them for three years and added $50/wk to the grocery bill? Okay, well. You could send them that money every week, or you could save that much extra in a special savings fund. Then when your mom is retired and actually short of funds, you will have surplus to share. In the meantime, with your guilt under control because you're taking concrete steps to ensure she won't starve, you can respond with a mixture of jokes, empathy, and problem-solving attempts.

I mean, when you were sick, you weren't spending thousands on other people and them asking them to help, were you? So, objectively she is mostly okay right now, just concerned for the future. I wouldn't tell her that you're saving, by the way.
posted by salvia at 7:40 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have been given some good advice above, so I will just add two points as food for thought:

Is mom trying to get money from you to hide an impulsive spending spree from dad? Or...has sister stolen or otherwise misappropriated money for substance abuse reasons and mom is enabling somehow?

If I were you, start a savings account so you can help your parents when they desperately need it. Things don't sound so desperate right now.
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:35 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

(I'm not sure why it's inappropriate for kids/parents to talk about money issues together? I knew when my parents were worried/fighting about money. I think this is a class/cultural thing.)

If you think your mom needs money, you should just ask her. And if she does, don't beggar yourself, but think about asking her if she wants to meet with you and a financial planner to figure out if she can establish a spousal IRA account, and if there's a way for you to contribute to her catch up contributions.
posted by spunweb at 10:01 PM on May 7, 2012

Don't consider handing over one cent since you have no idea whatsoever what is going between these three people. Nor do you want to know.

Stay as far away from this issue as you can.

Follow the wise advice up-thread.

Cease being the go-between. If you continue in this role, you are doomed to failure.

You want help with the "guilt" (manipulation?) your mom is throwing your direction? Remember that being asked to mediate the problems of your parents at this circumstance or in earlier times is/was never appropriate. Nope. Never.

Stay strong.

If you want to be a Force of Good here, stop enabling the dysfunction. Really. That's the most mature and responsible thing for you to do. Lead by example.

Best to you.
posted by jbenben at 10:05 PM on May 7, 2012

The more I think about this, the less I think this is about you, and the more I agree with you that therapy is critical. In the meantime, trying to stay out of it and be non-reactive might be best.

This situation is really charged, because it's about their conflict over money, which may be deeply rooted in their life stories and family histories. You might try to get a bit of distance by really thinking about what's going on for each of them. That could help it feel less about you.

So many different narratives might be going on here. I'm not saying any of these are right, and I'm not trying to assert that growing up rich or poor makes a person any particular way, nor take sides, but consider these possible stories --

-- Your mom bounced around foster care and was poor. She always felt second in line for foster families' expenditures (after their "real" kids) but believed that when she became part of a real family, they'd share everything. Now, when you or your father create financial boundaries, it's really emotionally hard for her?
-- Your dad fell in love with your mom but never quite believed she loved him. Maybe he grew up with stereotypes about "poor people" that contributed. He feared that she was marrying him because of his money, and to help care for your half-sister. He promised himself he wouldn't be a dupe and would always make her carry her own weight so that he would know she loved him for him?
-- Your mom grew up living hand-to-mouth. When she finally had access to money, maybe she had little concept of saving and spent it. Maybe your dad realistically created separate accounts (the account for spending and the one for saving). Maybe this made your mom resent him as some stingy rich person like the rich kids in school?
-- Or maybe your dad has an unrealistic fear of scarcity and is saving ridiculous amounts. Maybe he lives deeply in fear of poverty, whereas your mom has experienced it and knows that people always get by somehow, more or less, and believes you ought to spend it on the people you love?
-- Maybe seeing your mom give money to your sister while she was doing drugs made your dad deeply anxious, knowing that bottomless pit of addiction would never be filled. Maybe she refused to find ways to address his fear here, and in return he felt resentful of your mom's decisions and unwilling to mitigate the consequences of that decision on her?

These are just a few of the many narratives that could be going on here, and the point is that it's mostly NOT about you.

But you are in a tough spot. You grew up in the middle of a conflict, and it must be hard to have your mom pressure you, as it might threaten to drag you into the middle of this war. To stay out of it, you may have to really get clear with yourself about your own beliefs about money and find ways to communicate about this lovingly with your mom.

Depending on what's going on for her, it might even be worth going to therapy with her. The more you understand what's going on for your mom around money, the more you may be able to navigate through her fears, guilt-tripping, and veiled accusations here. I'm not saying it's your job to solve this for her. But if you know what's REALLY going on, the conversation might stop being essentially "give me money," "I don't want to give you money." For instance, if she fears future scarcity, maybe she needs reassurance and/or a financial planner, whereas if she feels jealous, maybe she needs you to mention that you had box seats at the game because you won a work raffle, not because of your massive riches. Fundamentally, this isn't work you can do for her, but family therapy might be quite enlightening.
posted by salvia at 10:06 PM on May 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Sorry, I haven't read all the replies (many and long!), but it could be that your mom is just looking to vent about your dad's stinginess and is maybe hinting around for you to say something like "it's really f'ed up that dad is retired and you're not; he should stop hoarding all his money to himself." In other words, looking for commiseration or wanting someone else to take her side or give her "permission" to resent him. And maybe it's your own feeling of indebtedness that's making you think it's about you. Just a thought; it may not be the case.

I think salvia gave great advice about doing something concrete and manageable like a weekly or monthly check, and framing it--both in your own head and openly for them--as paying them (both) back for the help they gave you rather than as supporting your mom or funding her retirement.
posted by désoeuvrée at 10:52 PM on May 7, 2012

I have a suggestion. Don't respond to hints, especially passive aggressive ones. If someone constantly suggests that they are broke, they are hoping that you will offer something without them having to actually ask. Just deny them that, and things may get much clearer as to her intentions, since she has to then say them in her own words. Clarity can make things easier either to give your mom money or not depending on what she actually wants.
This is my pet peeve by the way, I have a sister who does the hinting around thing, and it drives me nuts. If you want something from me, you had better come out and ask for it, I'm not going to dance around your expectations.
posted by Sucht at 11:09 PM on May 7, 2012

Call your mother, out of the blue, so that you're in control of the conversation. Say "Hi mom, I'm just calling because I am doing some financial planning for the future, and I was thinking about you. Would you be comfortable giving me a breakdown of your monthly cash flow and your savings, perhaps now and then once a year going forward? Knowing the situation you're in will help me look ahead, to figure out how I can plan for my own future."

She is unlikely to give you this information. Also, you haven't promised to help her at all. But hey, maybe she'll give you the information and you can use it as you move forward to determine if you can help her someday (although don't admit this to her!)

Also, if she responds by asking if you can help her financially, you can simply say "I'm not in a position to help you financially. Still, you never know, I might win the lottery, and having your financial information will help me figure out if I'll ever be in a position to help you."

Again, no promise that you will. But you're taking control of this conversation, and if she continues dropping hints, you can respond "Since you've brought up money, when are you sending me your financial information?" and she'll let it drop...or if she says she doesn't want to share that info with you, yet drops hints later, you can say "Mom, I thought you didn't want to share financial info with me. Have you changed your mind? If so, send me that info."
posted by davejay at 3:09 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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