My mother is financially irresponsible, is there anything I can do?
September 24, 2014 2:05 PM   Subscribe

My mother is likely to have a lot of upcoming expenses; she is nearing retirement age, she has significant health problems, and she needs to sell a house that needs a lot of expensive repairs. But she is spending amazing amounts of money on things she doesn't need, and I am really worried about her future. I am living paycheck-to-paycheck and won't be able to help her at all. Can I or should I say anything?

The most pressing issue is the house, which by my guesstimate needs at minimum $20,000-30,000 in repairs before it could even be put on the market. She cannot maintain it and with her declining health, it's impractical to impossible to have a two story house. She constantly complains that my dad is cheap and won't spend the money to hire someone to fix things, yet the things she wants fixed first are low priority for a homebuyer (e.g., she wants to put more outlets in a room vs. repairing the roof).

All of this would be solved in a year if she did not spend astonishing amounts of money on luxuries. High end makeup, oriental rugs, antique furniture, designer clothes, weekly manicures, massages, dinners at four star restaurants, etc. Luxury trips two or three times per year. Thousands of dollars donated to charity and churches (good for them, but still.) I could very esily cut $2000/mo from their budget and they would still have a very nice middle-class lifestyle.

It seems like she just cannot connect the dots, that she regards these purchases as essential as food or water. I suspect a lot of this comes from compensating for growing up extremely poor. She was like this during my entire childhood and we often ate beans and rice so she could buy expensive suits. I do not think she's going into debt; the house is paid off, and both my parents are still working. My dad gets a pension and doesn't spend anything at all on himself. (Which also causes quite a bit of resentment, and my dad has worked long past retirement age in part to subsidize this lifestyle.)

My approach so far has been to listen to her concerns and fears that she'll never have money to repair the house, but not to offer unasked-for advice. She wants to get marriage counseling because dad nitpicks her spending habits (her words) but she doesn't see that she's doing anything wrong. I gently suggested that maybe there is an overarching issue than just the most recent upset at her buying 15 pairs of shoes, but she dismissed that.

My fear is that my dad will die first (likely, he's much older and in worse health), and with him gone, there will no longer be any semblance of resistance to her spending. She won't have his income, she will be unable to fix or sell the house, and... I don't know what happens then. She can't move in with me, both because it's impractical and because it endangers my own mental health (she was abusive when I was a child). This stuff is keeping me awake at night.

So... should I be more forthright about her spending habits? What should I say? Should I suggest counseling specific to this issue? She's seen the same psychiatrist for a long time and trusts her (she has bipolar, which is medicated), but I don't know what they talk about. If I suggest a financial planner, do they deal with the psychological aspects of overspending at all?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'd leave it alone except to encourage the marriage counseling that she seems already on-board with. You could also write her psychiatrist a letter outlining your concerns if you think that her behavior is due to not well-controlled bipolar (entirely possible if she's recklessly spending and very impulsive).

But, the reality is that she and your father are adults and this is their issue to sort out. You are not obligated to pick up the pieces and save the day if she runs this thing into the ground. You also don't have to listen to her grievances about not being able to spend on fixing the house. You can suggest she see a financial planner who can give her advice and consider the subject closed. It's also possible to sell a house that needs a lot of work, you just have to sell it for less. If she brings it up, change the subject.

You survived her abuse when you couldn't help yourself and now that you're an adult, you've more than earned the right to keep yourself safe and healthy now that you are able to help yourself.
posted by quince at 2:25 PM on September 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

She wants to get marriage counseling? Support her in that.

Can you drop a note to her therapist? Make it clear you understand the therapist will not be having a discussion with you. Just say you have concerns and provide some detail. Perhaps they do discuss this, but who knows?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:25 PM on September 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a very difficult issue. The spending habits with retirement years issues alone are likely worth not just a visit to a professional counselor for her but you as well.

It think the stuff you bring of at the end of your story is the most telling - history of abuse and bi-polar.

You might talk to someone and figure out your own relationship to this situation before you try to intervene. She is an adult and the hardest thing I find with parents is accepting they may never change.

Good luck.
posted by notatron at 2:28 PM on September 24, 2014

the house, which by my guesstimate needs at minimum $20,000-30,000 in repairs before it could even be put on the market

This isn't true, a house can be sold as-is. It might even make more financial sense to sell the house as-is than to do repairs anticipating what a buyer would be looking for.

I had a relative who took to spending on the most ridiculous things (the worst are "contests" and scams) and ended up wasting nearly $10,000 before others realized.

Marriage counseling or financial counseling won't help someone who has lost the ability to evaluate their own spending habits. The best situation here is for her to realize that she's making bad decisions. If she is willing to let someone else take control of bigger picture financial planning, paying bills, and other essentials, she can have a separate account for spending so that she doesn't inadvertently make her later life much harder than it needs to be.

Be careful with this, if she doesn't understand the limitations there will be bounced checks, which lead to bounced check fees, and in some states can be a felony.

Another possibility is annuities, but look at this carefully with a "fee only" (not "fee based", no!) financial advisor if you aren't familiar with them. Likewise for reverse mortgages.
posted by yohko at 2:33 PM on September 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Will you drop me a memail? I would like to share some things offline. (I mean, online, but privately.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:36 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tough one. Yes, encourage the marriage counseling if you can get your dad to go. Is he receptive to practical suggestions like the marriage counseling? Would he be willing to hire a home inspector to go through the house and make a list for the fix-ups that will help sell the house? Otherwise, they can sell it as is and move to a cheaper place, say a condo or subsidized senior housing if they qualify.

Here's a shocking piece of advice I once received from a professor who was also a psychoanalyst when I was dealing with family alcoholism in my early twenties: "Miss X, you don't owe your parents anything." After that sunk in, the letting go was so liberating, I dealt with my parents with candor and love, not duty, guilt, anger, or desperation for them to do things I suggested so I could be free. I was free when I realized I owed them nothing.
posted by Elsie at 2:36 PM on September 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I would encourage the marriage counseling and suggest that your folks both meet with a fee-based financial counselor for retirement planning, or perhaps do Financial Peace University. Their church may offer it. It's a love it or hate it thing, but if it can be taken as a class with other couples and that can be really good for morale.

It's hard to watch people dig the hole, but no matter what you say, if they're not really asking you for advice, it won't be heard or acted upon. Now, if you mom comes to you one day and says, "Pookie, you're good with money, what do you think I should do?" Well, that's a horse of a different color.

I give financial advice to my family members all the time. But only if it's very specifically asked for.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:44 PM on September 24, 2014

In answer to 'should' you say anything, 100% yes. Whether or not you feel responsible for your mom, you've got a stake in her future, whether you wind up cutting her off or not, even if it's 'just' emotional. If she's left with a poverty line income in her last years, it's going to cost you a lot more sleepless nights, at a minimum. It might cost a lot more than that. I think it's completely fair to say, "Mom, what are your plans for the next couple of decades? IBecause I'm not sure I'm going to be able to take care of you the way you'd like, if it comes to it. And honestly, it looks like it could come to that, based on the facts. I want to know, for my peace of mind and yours, what exactly is going to happen".

I don't know whether a family meeting would work, or if you could get your dad behind you first, but I think this conversation needs to happen. So you can sleep. Even if it comes to nothing and she runs herself into the ground, you'll know you at least tried.

It's really unfair for you to be burdened by her poor decisions.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:43 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

As someone who has tried to get his Mother on the right financial track, all I can say is don't do what I did. My family and I staged something of an intervention for her well-being, including her sisters and parents as well as myself and my CPA wife. We worked out a financial plan/budget for her, and after all the work and emotional turmoil, she ignored the advice, and pursued her former ways in secret so that my wife, 'won't find out and punish me.' In the end, things are taking their natural course - that which I was trying to avoid - and my Mom still does not understand that her choices caused the problem, and not external factors. This experience, and some other issues related to her, have strained our relationship and I rarely speak with her now.

My advice, be supportive, but don't offer broad advice. Let her make her own decision/mistakes, stay on what she perceives to be her side.
posted by FenderBellyBodine at 3:46 PM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

My mother was/is like this. The good news is that when she finally did run out of money to spend, she stopped spending so extravagantly. She still doesn't manage her money the way I would, but the multiple tens of thousands of dollars for holidays, furniture, etc has turned into hundreds of dollars for weekends away, and haircuts at $200 instead of the $30 I would be paying if I lived off social security with no savings.

I understand your concern about the house, but as long as she has somewhere paid off to live, she'll likely be okay. Right now she does, even if it's not ideal. If and when she gets to the point of selling it , she can do that with big repairs not done, and she will still probably be able to purchase something smaller from the proceeds. (Again, that's what my mother did).

I think debt should be your main concern. My mother's financial circumstances meant that she basically doesn't qualify for so much as a credit card, let alone a mortgage, so she has limited resources to overspend from. Depending on which country your mother lives in, her access to debt might be different, so I think that's something to keep an eye on. But if she had an impoverished childhood, she might actually be resistant to running up large debts anyway , even if she is willing to overspend when the money is there. Again, that was the case for my mother.

Finally, you probably need to work on not feeling too sorry for her when she does end up in financially tight circumstances. Sometimes I visit my mother and she's complaining that she can't afford to pay the latest heating bill, or that she had to eat toast for dinner last night because her food money for the week is gone. And my first reaction is to feel desperatelysorry for her. And my second reaction is to want to payall her bills. (And sometimes I do). But I try to bear in mind that if she ran out of cash before the end of the month, those six new pairs of shoes by the front door might have something to do with it. And I also remind myself of the periods in my life when I was eating beans on toast for weeks on end and unable to afford healthcare and she was spending it up on luxury consumer goods and expensive travel, without offering me so much as a cent. I don't think there is anything wrong with you reminding yourself (in your case) of the abuse, and that you don't owe your parents anything.
posted by lollusc at 5:21 PM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

"She can't move in with me, both because it's impractical and because it endangers my own mental health (she was abusive when I was a child). This stuff is keeping me awake at night."

I think you're enmeshed with your parents and that it's endangering your mental health now. Especially if you've had a history of abuse with one (most likely your father also played a role in the abuse, it is a dynamic rather than one person).

I think you're terrified because you know if your dad dies first, you will not be able to say 'no' to your mother (because you'd be a 'bad daughter', right?), and your ultimate fear is she'd move in with you and abuse you all the time, effectively taking over your life.

I suggest distancing yourself radically and seeking a good (recommended by someone?) therapist. My deepest, heartfelt sympathy to you for dealing with a difficult situation.

One last thing: be especially kind to yourself. If you were neglected/abused as a child, you might not be as kind to yourself as someone who hasn't been. Give yourself daily treats and reminders that you're special, you're lovable, and you deserve happiness while on this earth.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:32 PM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would say forget the counseling. There is not going to be any change of habits for your Dad or your Mom at this point. I would approach her and your Dad not by questioning their spending habits but by asking what their plan is. You are their child and want to make sure they have a thought out plan for the next 10-15 years. What happens if one of them can no longer work? What happens if one of them requires medical assistance and cannot live in a house? What happens when one of them dies? Etc.

First, they may well have more money than you think or have an actual thought out plan. It sounds unlikely, but hey you never know. Second, questioning specifics types of spending will not get them to change their (her) ways. Third, if you are unable to offer assistance, then you should let them know that and it, in my mind, precludes you from telling them what to do with their money.

I would offer to help come up with a plan if they don't have one, but not much more you can do unless you are willing to go nuclear and fight for control of their assets.
posted by 724A at 8:33 PM on September 24, 2014

Oh, I forgot to say: getting more involved with solving your parents' problems keeps you from using that energy to make your own life more interesting and fulfilling, and solving your own problems.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:37 PM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

My approach so far has been to listen to her concerns and fears that she'll never have money to repair the house, but not to offer unasked-for advice. She wants to get marriage counseling because dad nitpicks her spending habits (her words) but she doesn't see that she's doing anything wrong.

Your father's strategy of getting a professional they paid for to agree with him seems to be working just fine.

Ask him if he needs help in handling the finances. He's going to be an easier sell than she wil. Just approach it delicately.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:59 PM on September 24, 2014

The ball is in your father's court, not yours. I'd recommend that you quietly but steadfastly support your Dad and encourage him to get professional help for financial planning and a will, so that if he should die first, the money will be distributed for your mother through a payee or bank so there are limitations on how much she can get on a monthly basis. I know a couple of elderly people who live quite happily under this system, but your father will have to be the one who sets it up. And encourage him to go for the counseling - if your Mom's spending is a result of her bipolar disorder, the counselor will recognize that and hopefully get that under better control.

You can't put a stop to her spending - that's what she does and she's no more likely to stop it than you are to stop talking or walking. If she's in danger of literally running out of money TO spend, your father will surely be aware of that fact and that's a call for immediate professional advice/paperwork.

As for the house, I'd seriously consider talking to your Dad about selling it now, as is, and moving into a smaller but less needy place - maybe a condo where the yard and maintenance are taken care of - or something similar. Most of us reach a point in just age alone where all those things that relate to periodic maintenance on the house just simply get to be overwhelming - too much work, too much money, too much disruption - so they get put aside. It's a common subject of discussion where I live - in an apartment building for 62+ oldies. Every single winter someone speaks of how happy they are to not have to shovel snow anymore - one little example.

Don't overlook retirement communities - many folks thrive there; there are social activities galore, hostessing and dinner parties and golf and casino trips and card games and BBQs and community volunteer activities - they can be pretty busy places, and there's no upkeep.
posted by aryma at 9:48 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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