Tuesday, March 11, 2008

More on Dealing with Mom

This comment on yesterday's post really struck me:

do you think there's a way to do things differently, so you're not 'enabling' her self-sabotaging spending habits? I mean, we all can learn and change, no matter how old we are. Believing that it's just fine to spend an extra $100 - $250 so you have more time to get ready and put on makeup for a flight -- that's just not in tune with reality, especially in this economy.
This is very true. The idea of spending $200 to have time to put on makeup-- well, it's pretty terrible. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that. I'm worried about my mom-- she is under such stress living with my father, and I think she is really suffering from anxiety and depression. My mother has always been a very cheery person, always trying to see the bright side of things, but she's been so subdued and distracted the last few times I've spoken to her. I think depression is why she is finding it so hard to drag herself out of bed in the morning, and if she still cares about how she looks, maybe that's kind of a good sign.

But I do think my mother would be happier if she could get a grip on her finances and gain a little independence. When is financial "tough love" appropriate? Am I enabling her? What is the right balance between trying to guide her towards more financially responsible habits and trying to just be supportive to someone who is having a rough time? And is there ever a time when it's just "too late?"

That is how I feel about my mother, that it's kind of too late: she's in her mid-60s, she spent almost her entire life taking care of her children and husband, and her own mother, and now her grandchildren too. She wanted to be a housewife and have a husband pay the bills, in the traditional mold. After a life like that, it's a bit of a raw deal to expect someone to suddenly be independent and take care of herself. She's not equipped for it-- it would be like setting a highly-bred toy poodle loose in the wilderness and expecting it to survive on its own. Of course people are not poodles, and my mother, like any human being, can sometimes have surprising resilience. But right now I think she's really worn down.

It always just makes me so sad that she and my dad can't just relax and enjoy this time of their life the way I see the parents of many of my friends doing. I can't help but wonder what went wrong. Where did the money go? Did my father make less money than we thought? Did he not invest what he had well enough? Did my mother really spend too much? Did my dad overspend on his own interests too? Did paying for my sister's and my college education do them in? Did their health problems have a financial impact? Did my parents' marital incompatibility make money just one weapon in their ongoing skirmishes?

I suppose the answer to all these questions could be yes. But how is that so different from other people? I thought my parents did a lot of things right. What did other people do right that they didn't? What can I do right that they didn't?


Esme said...

I agree that in some cases it may be too hard to change, especially your parents.

We got to keep in mind that our parents are from a different generation. A generation where self-help and self-awareness books are as plentiful. So maybe the idea of always evolving and changing is not such a conscious thought for them.

It's even harder as children to try and change our parents. Because sometimes it's hard to see that little girl who you taught everything there is to know in life actually has something to teach you now.

Erin said...

has your mother considered getting a part time job for herself? I have an aunt of mine, who after overspending constantly after an extended period of time was virtually "cut off" by her husband, having to ask him for money to do everything, including get gas. since she had no job, she was left at his mercy. she finally decided to strike out on her own and take her hobby of bow making to the next level. she parlayed it into a small business, working for friends and close relatives, and was able to establish a nice spending money income for herself. the have both since retired, have moved back home, and are living off of their savings now, but the job was a great lesson in teaching her the value of money at such a later age (she was over 50 at the time). maybe if your mom has the ability to create her own income and distribute it herself, she will have a better appreciation for money. you said in earlier posts that she likes to decorate; why not build from there and start doing private consulting for close family and friends? (i'm sorry, i did not mean for my post to be so long, but it's worth the idea!)

SandyVoice said...

Esme is absolutely right -- it's hard for parents to take children seriously as adults. My mother says I will always be her baby.

You are not legally respnsible for your parents' behavior. But if your parents have no money, and your sister has no money, you are going to end up FEELING financially responsible for your parents' old age. You might consider talking about this with a financial advisor who specializes in elder issues. AARP has resources, too, and you might want to contact the (recently renamed) Martha Stewart Center at Mt. Sinai Hospital for suggestions. Make sure you are prepared for what is coming, for which your parents almost certainly will not be prepared.

RacerX said...

"I thought my parents did a lot of things right. What did other people do right that they didn't? What can I do right that they didn't?"

They raised a wonderful, thoughtful daughter, which is saying a lot.

I have a Mom that doesn't get it either. I mean, they just got back from a cruise, knowing that she was probably going to lose her job!

I hate to say it, but it is where I learned a ton of bad habits, but she did the best she could. I hope to do better, and hope my kids do better then that...The American dream I suppose!

Kizz said...

I'm in a similar boat. If you get the answers to these questions please let me know! In the mean time best of luck helping your mom out.

"Future Millionaire" said...

Like Kizz and you I'm in a very similar situation with my mom. I've finally accepted the fact that she will never become financially responsible because I push her, she will only become financially responsible when the time is right for her - I can't push her. If I were to push her (and trust me I tried) we end up just fighting and I isolate an already depressed woman who needs all the support she can get from her family and friends.

Maybe I'm an enabler of my mom, but come on she's my mama and I love her so if I can give her some small comfort then I'm going to - that's just the way life works. When she's finally ready to take responsibility of her finances I'll be there for her but in the mean time I'll still be there for her.

Anonymous said...

This is a really complex situation. It sounds like you definitely handle it with grace on your end. My only suggestion about the gift would be for next time it on the spot give her the cash for the flight. Say something like, "i've looked around and flights from point a to point b are generally $250 dollars, this is for you to use on a plane ticket" You can even put in an extra $50 or so and make it $300. It is not fair for her to expect you to pay an unreasonably higher fare than average to accomodate non-necessary things. Then, if she has to book a later, more expensive flight or change it completely she is on her own for the additional charges and you are out of the picture.

Long comment, but that is what I would do.

Escape Brooklyn said...

Wow, that's such a familiar situation for me, unfortunately. It's so hard to sit on the sidelines watching parents make lousy financial decisions, especially since there's the guilt at not being able to do more and the incessant feeling of responsibility. (This is the woman who gave birth to you, after all.) And what happens when they really need help, like paying for nursing homes and other urgent medical care, but they don't have the resources because of [arguably] bad financial decisions? I worry pretty regularly about all that.

For now, I like anonymous 3:54's idea to just give cash or a gift certificate for a fixed amount in advance. That way, if your mom wants something fancier/more expensive she can make up the difference, and if she can't afford to then she'll have to make some compromises. Like get on the early flight!

MetaMommy said...

This is tough. I have a similar situation with my grandmother, who spent her life making terrible financial decisions. Honestly, money burned a hole in her pocket, and although she expected to be married and supported for her entire life, things didn't work out that way. After a divorce, she had to work and care for her own financial interests, and she never managed to do it right. Giving her money or the like always depressed me because it never made her situation better; she took anything related to money for granted, which annoyed me even more. I just wanted her to make better decisions. In the end, the best I can do is help her manage her money, without contributing. Regardless of how generous she had been with me in the past, it's primarily because she never truly understood the value of money. So I had to put my soft feelings aside and be honest with myself about what she really needed. That said, sometimes it feels good to give someone a thoughtful, generous gift. Perhaps you can just put a cap on it next time.

Tiredbuthappy said...

I understand why you are being so gentle with her, but I'm worried about how far it could go. I might have told you this before, but my partner and I sat down and agreed on a dollar amount that we'll give to my mother over her lifetime. We have bailed her out once since then. She's about 15% of the way through the amount we decided on. She doesn't know this, of course, but I don't want to give her nothing because she has always been more than generous with me.

But, I have good news! My mother decided this week that maybe she should start saving 10% of her income for retirement. She's sixty-two. I am trying to see this as progress, not as too little, too late.

In my mother's case, her problem comes from the fact that she's always received a surprise windfall just when she was about to crash and burn. So I think it's especially harmful in her case for her to receive handouts.

Martha said...

Fascinating and worrisome issue, obviously it has touched so many of us. Maybe the best thing we can do for our parents is simply to be a good example. Instead of saying anything, we can show by our choices and behavior that that being financially responsible is liberating; that there is so much peace and happiness to be found in living below our means and enjoying simple pleasures. Not to mention how much easier we sleep at night with the security of a savings cushion and a longterm plan for financial independence.

Madame X, I thought it was so interesting that you shared about your mom’s depression and anxiety – that her mental state was a factor in you deciding to humor her irresponsible choices on the ticket price and humor her comment that she’d probably change the ticket anyway.

When I’ve been depressed and anxious I’ve found that overspending and acting irresponsibly provides temporary relief but then I feel even worse afterward, guilty and self-loathing. I wonder if some of your mom’s depression/anxiety arises from the gulf between how she’s living/behaving and what she knows her reality is?

You know, it is so hard for any of us (let alone our aging parents!) to start facing reality and taking responsibility for our own role in all of our problems. And yet, there is no other way to get better.

Anonymous said...

interesting issue. sometimes we just forget that being adults doesn't necessarily mean that we have matured accordingly. btw i esp. like Martha's comment. so true =)

Anonymous said...

For over two decades, my dad has gotten into bad financial debt, and my mom has rescued him by working and paying it off because he ignores the bills. It has taken a toll on her emotionally (depression, a need to take care of everyone but herself), and she has asked me more than once to talk to my father and shred his credit cards. But I have never felt totally comfortable confronting my dad about the problem.

At the age of 55, though, I think my father is finally learning to save money. I am still a student, but I am looking forward to earning money and help out my parents. I sometimes wonder what I would do with money-- would I pay off all of his debt? Or save it for myself so that I am not in their situation later?