Monday, August 17, 2009

Family Stress

I'm writing this after spending most of my weekend feeling some combination of angry and nauseous. My mother called to say that my dad, who'd been doing really well lately, was back in the hospital because he took a fall on the driveway and broke his shoulder. After my mother gave me the medical update we were just sort of catching up on other things. She told me they'd finally finished having the exterior of the house painted and mentioned that she also wanted to expand the downstairs bathroom to add a shower. Although this idea actually makes some sense, there are reasons it may not be possible and I also reminded my mother that we'd had this big discussion about the budget and that she really needed to hold off on any major projects for a while because they're running out of money too fast.

Well, I know it probably wasn't the best time to have mentioned it (though you'd think it was also probably not the best time for my mother to be regaling me with tales of home improvements), and sure enough, Mom kind of blew up at me, saying, more or less, that she didn't care about the money and was going to do these things no matter what I said... that they'd have to sell the house someday and it was important for it to have curb appeal... that she was stressed out from taking care of my dad and that decorating and renovating the house are her only pleasures in life... that somehow or other all the money stuff would work out because things just always do.
I started to remind her that things don't "just work out" and that she would be broke within a few years if she wasn't careful, but I realized I had to just shut my mouth and get off the phone or I'd say things I'd regret.

I was kicking myself afterwards and feeling guilty and doubtful. I felt like there was too much going on and I shouldn't have said anything about money until a calmer time. It's not like I want to harass my mother about her spending. I just want her to have a decent, comfortable life as best she can. And I began to wonder if maybe I was being too harsh. Maybe I'm too conservative, and was not taking into account that some of her expenses will lessen over time. Maybe things would work out.

I was mulling over all this until the next day when my sister ZZ and I were texting each other while she was at the hospital with my dad. I mentioned that our mother had an amazing ability to obsess about the house's curb appeal while her husband was in the hospital, and ZZ texted back:

F'ing serious?? Stupid driveway estimate why hes in hospital
Suddenly I didn't feel so guilty any more and was just angry. One of my mother's home beautification plans was to repave the driveway . Of all the items on her wish list, this was the craziest-- the driveway is fine except for a couple of minor cracks, and spending even a relatively low amount like $2,500 to repave a driveway is just stupid given that she is on track to potentially run out of savings and lose half her current income before she hits the age of 70. But despite telling me she'd hold off, she was apparently forging ahead, and I guess just shopping around for lower estimates. And I guess my Dad must have wanted to see what was going on and talk to the contractor and that's where he was when he fell. I guess my Mom felt guilty about it and wanted ZZ not to tell me how it happened.

I felt like I was in some kind of emotional butterchurn for the rest of the day, but in the end what upset me the most was that I felt my trust had been abused. My mother has had such a checkered history with money, but I used to think my dad was partially to blame for a lot of it. He treated her like a child; he was secretive about their finances, and never gave clear messages as to what they could afford and what they couldn't, other than to constantly complain that my mother spent too much. My mother became convinced that he was a rich miser who was witholding cash just to torture her.

So when my father got sick and I started organizing the family finances, I kept trying to clearly explain things to her. I walked her through all the bank accounts and bills. I drew up a budget and showed her exactly how much their income was vs. their expenses, and how the deficit was made up by drawing on their savings, and how many years those savings would last. And when I re-did the budget a couple of months ago, I sat her down again and showed her exactly what was going on. I didn't just tell her she was spending too much money. I didn't really tell her to do anything. I just explained to her that this was her current reality and that she needed to make some choices, and that if she could make some modest cutbacks now, it would save her from having to make devastating cutbacks later. I thought I could trust her to take this seriously if she felt like she was in control.
But now I feel like I've been lied to and that trust has been betrayed. I'm back to feeling like my mother is a drug addict or an alcoholic who swears they've cleaned up their act but keeps falling off the wagon.

Of course I keep telling myself that it's not MY money. But it's my father's money too, and he is too sick to control anything anymore, and I know that he would agree with me on all this if he had the mental energy to listen to any of it. And ultimately, if my mother really does burn through all her assets including any proceeds from selling the house, which I wouldn't put past her at all, then it will be my money that's at stake because I can't just let my parents starve. And then I see this chain reaction-- I'm trying to save all this money for my own retirement because I won't have anyone else to take care of me, and if that doesn't go according to plan because I'm supporting my parents, then will my niece and nephew be left holding the bag someday because they have to support me? I know that is getting a bit too gloom and doom and I can't imagine it would come to that, but it's hard not to feel angry about all the WASTE. My parents were never rich but they would have had enough money to have a perfectly comfortable retirement, and I don't understand why my mother prioritizes cosmetic enhancements to the house over things that would actually improve her life, like hiring someone to clean the house or help bathe my father.

I really don't know if I'll ever be able to get through to my mother. Part of me wants to just give up and let her suffer the consequences. Part of me wants to stick to my guns and tell her that she'd better not repave that driveway if she ever wants me to set foot on it. And then there are the crazy, desperate plans: could I send a letter to every contractor within a 20 mile radius of home and beg them not to return my mother's calls? Would it be worth the money to hire a lawyer to prove my mother is so insane as to be incompetent so I can take control of her bank accounts and somehow prevent her from doing all these crazy things to the house? But maybe other events will intervene: it's looking more and more like my dad could be in a nursing home soon, which means their money will evaporate a lot faster than even my mother can spend it. Will that be the thing that finally makes her wake up? Who knows... I just don't know how I'm going to deal with this.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I deal with this from time to time with my own family. Dad + brother don't know how to save money and live like there is no tomorrow. They've accumulated to much debt and I feel like it's my responsibility to make them realize that it's foolish. This in turn makes me look like I am a know-it-all and arrogant... so trust me, I know what you're going through.

I can't say I would blame your mother on the fact that your father injured himself on the driveway, though. Things like that happen, and the fact that he injured himself on her driveway was purely coincidence.

Madame X said...

Good point-- it's not that I think my father's injury was my mother's fault. It's ironic that it happened that way, but what really bothers me is that she was trying to conceal it from me.

Jo J said...

I hope it isn't out of line to mention this, but there's an organisation dedicated to helping friends and families of money addicts - the people who have to witness and live through all that crazy stuff you describe, have to watch others self-destruct with their spending:
http://www.debt-anon.org/

Hazzard said...

I typed out a big long comment but then deleted it. I completely understand your situation because I'm living the same thing now. My dad passed away about 2.5 years ago and my mom is now somewhat limited in what her choices are. Luckily they worked hard to build a second house out at a lake with $100K in inheritance from my dad's mom. It's now worth about $150K. In the end, that's whats going to help supplement my mom's small social security check but she'll have to sell it. Even with all the plans I've laid out, my mom still sometimes feels like having $50K in the bank gives her the option to upgrade her house. I've had to spend a lot of time walking through the "business case" of each expenditure to show her the money is providing her more security by sitting in the bank than it ever would in a house upgrade. I also point out that while she may spend $100 on an upgrade, she'll only get a 75% return when she sells the house, etc.

All that being said, I only offer advice to my mother and never tell her what to do. I spent years trying to get my dad to do various things and I've regretted ever pushing him on any of those things now that he's gone. While it might have helped, it has always caused me regret to know I added stress to his life by trying to get him to see things my way. My mom will be okay, and so will yours, regardless of whether they see things our way. They just may find things get a lot harder by not doing some of the things we recommend.

MEG said...

It may help to confess to your mother the feelings you have behind what may appear to her like judgement, bossiness, and condescension. If you explain that you are scared for her well being and that you are worried you'll end up resenting her because all your saving and sacrificing may go to waste if you have to use it to support her once she runs out of money.

Obviously you want to do it when things are calmer, but it might help a lot for her to understand and empathize with your viewpoint.

But also, you don't need to worry about her starving. She may not live a life of luxury, but there will always be state sponsored nursing homes for older folks to live in and food to feed them regardless of whether they have kids to pay for it or not. You might remind her of this fact and subtly warn her that you're not prepared to go into the poorhouse yourself to keep her from this fate.

Karen said...

First-I'm sorry about your Dad and I hope his shoulder heals quickly. What is the status of the tumor.

Second-My father has Alzheimer's and my mother chooses to be clueless about money. I too worry that she will blow it all or if she doesn't my Dad's illness will go through it. My father used to make comments while I was growing up about my mother and money and I thought he was exaggerating but he was RIGHT ON! Personally, I don't think you are going to change your mother. If she doesn't want to change she's not going to. I think you need to give her a little tough love and let her learn some hard lessons. I would micromanage my mother's checking account so she wouldn't bounce checks, would move my own money over when she get low, I'm her PoA, I met with a financial advisor and I could go on and on. It didn't do a damn thing instead put all of the responsibility on me so I pulled back and checks starting bouncing and money got low (since she doesn't have a savings account and relies on pension and soc checks). Slowly she got the idea. She's better but she will never be good with money. I just need to accept the fact that she may blow through all of my father's hard earned money (in his IRA) and ironically my father called this one years ago. While she still has money I'm making her buy a LTC policy because I need to know she won't have to go in a crappy nursing home if she needs it.

I'm sorry you are going through this. It sucks, but in the end it's your mother's problem not yours.

Rose said...

Dealing with these issues with my own 73 year old mother. It is painful and frustrating and in the end she'll do what she wants to do. She always does, regardless of the cost or the ramifications. And this is someone on a limited income, since she spent her life savings on a series of poorly-executed home improvements. That, plus refinancing her home 11times to bring her mortgage from $15000 to $130000 over the past 15 years.

AP said...

Thanks for being honest and posting this for us to read. I hope that things will come together.

Anonymous said...

Madame X wrote: “I really don't know if I'll ever be able to get through to my mother.”

You must be kidding when you say “I really don’t know…”

Your postings overtime have made it 100 percent clear that you will not succeed in altering your mother’s financial habits one iota. The question you have to ask yourself is WHY you continue to hit your head against this particular wall. You must face the fact that your father did not place you in charge of your parent’s finances when he had the chance.

I am sorry to be so blunt, but it is time for you to distance yourself from this topic. All you will succeed in doing is turning your mother against you as you have zero probability of changing her spending habits.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome each time. I am sorry to say that describes your approach to this subject thus far.

Anonymous said...

Hi -- I think you HAVE to stop your mom. If they run out of money, I really don't think you and your sister would let them live on the street or your dad go to a sub-par nursing home. I just don't think any decent kids would have the heart, even though it would be tremendously unfair if you kids had to deal with everything because your parents planned for retirement and were never low income.

Are you close enough to run over there once a week to put a stop to any of the projects that your mom may start in your absence?

-Vivien

Sicilian said...

Your mom has a problem. Your dad has hidden it for years. You will not be able to fix it because your dad couldn't. I think you will have to decide what it will take to get along with your mom. Stepping out of the financial situation might be the only answer. She doesn't want to hear what you have to say, and will go to great lengths to keep you out of her business. I know you are worried, but the relationship is more important than the money.
Ciao

Anonymous said...

I wish you and your family health, wealth, and happiness.
This is free advice from a stranger on the internet but fwiw: is there any way your parents can sell you their house now? You can rent it to them for a dollar or something; they don't have to move. Then the state can't take it to pay for nursing homes, and contractors would need your signature to do anything.

Unless that only sucks you deeper into the situation you are trying to detach from. I don't think you can change your mother's spending habits. Best of luck to you.

Ashie said...

Things are so difficult when it comes to parents. I know how you feel about the need to be a "dutiful daughter" and how you couldn't let your parents suffer (sub-par nursing home, etc) after they brought you up. Parents are not someone you can distance yourself from (at least in my opinion, I notice another commentor advised you to do that). I tend to lean towards the "micromanage and make her unhappy and angry with you but living a better life than she otherwise would" category. I'm sorry. These are difficult choices. As for your dad not putting you in charge of finances - oversights do happen. People don't like facing difficult futures. Can it still be done, PoA, etc? Of course I don't know your actual situation, only you know that.

Again, I feel I should apologize for butting my nose in, but I really love what I've come to know of you through your blog and I hope things get better.

:)

frugal zeitgeist said...

No advice, just hugs. This is a very difficult situation for everyone. I hope you come to a resolution that everyone can live with (and more importantly, that your mom can stick to).

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, we are all pretty much powerless sometimes when it comes to controlling the actions of other people. If you want to save your relationship with your mother you are going to have to let this go. I've watched my own mother make the same kinds of choices throughout her life and I finally had to acknowledge that there is nothing I can do about it. I'm an only child too, and I know that there will be no one but me to shoulder the burden that I know my parents are going to lay on me. When it gets to be too much, I will let them know and I will do no more. I don't know what other option I have.

Anonymous said...

I am a reader of your blog, but this is my first comment - just wanted to say hang in there. Family can be so difficult sometimes. You seem like a smart capable woman, I'm sure you'll figure out what to do soon enough...

Anya said...

Hang in there, MX. There's nothing harder than dealing w/a family member who's being self-destructive. Sorry you're going through this--you're doing all the right things, and you will get to the other side!

Anonymous said...

First take a deep breath. Then look in the mirror and see the intelligence and deep thought that resonates in all your postings. Your parents have gotten along all these years and there will be resolution to their situation whether for good or bad. Do the best you can but remember this is real life, not a tv show. Good thoughts are with you from more people than you can even imagine.

Anonymous said...

We are going through the similar situation with my husband's parents. They have no savings and the only asset they have is their house which still has a large mortgage. They live in Florida where the housing market is terrible and getting worse everyday. His mother just asked for a divorce - WORST TIMING EVER. They cannot afford to live apart, they don't have any funds to retire and they are are past retirement age. They are looking at their children to fund their retirement and it makes me angry to no end to think that our hard earned money will go to cover their irresponsibility. They are also obese (both over 300 pounds) and make excuses for their poor health. They run the AC all the time at a cost of $400 a month. Of course, we refuse to finance their divorce or their desire to live in separate places. I'm not sure what we could do at this point. I am petrified of finding one or the other on our doorstep one day. *sigh* If you think about it, they are living on the work of three generations. They received help/income/inheritance from their parents, they wasted their own incomes and now they are living off of their children and Social Security. Our generation is stuck paying for our parents and our children as well as the debt our parents left behind. Sorry about the rant but your post struck a chord in me and I really feel that something has to be done on a broader level.

Dreamer said...

You have to let it go, you tried again and again. Your mother is too old to change now, take a step back. Dont forget, you are the CHILD she is the ADULT, not the other way around. I have been through something very similar with my mother,for your own sanity you must step back, you do not have to condone the behaviour but you can make it clear that you are not going to play "the game" anymore.

mapgirl said...

I'm with Frugal Zeigeist. I can offer you a virtual hug and support, but very little advice. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

Anonymous said...

Coming from someone,who has been taking care mom for over 20 years....
More you give,more Mom wants...
You have to learn to let it go.
It will never change!!!or your niece, either nephew will take care of you when you are older.
Take care of youself!!!!
That means,Let your Mom know,there is No help coming from you,when the money runs out.
I understand,what you are going through.....

T'Pol said...

Madame X, hang in there...

I have a similar situation in my hands so I understand. The irony is; this usually happens to us, to the frugal people who care about the future...

Take care of yourself and be well...

Anonymous said...

It must be hard to be in a situation of basically having to parent your parents. That's probably why it's hard for your mom to hear it from you -- normally, it's the parent's role to advise the child, not the other way around.

Madame X said...

Thank you for all the comments everyone! It helps...

Moneyapolis said...

Wow. So sorry you're going through this. It's eerily similar to my own parents (although they're a little younger than your parents so it hasn't hit the fan yet in quite the same way...but it will). Thanks for sharing your own experience and feelings so openly and I'm sending hugs, too.

Brooklyn Money said...

Sorry to hear that, MX. I was struck by reading your post about how much you have assumed the parental role. Maybe that's natural as we age, but unless your mom is not all there and you can get power of attorney, she's going to do what she's going to do and in the end you can't stop her, you'll just end up driving yourself crazy.

luc said...

d u pray if u r going 2 sleep..

bugbear said...

Tell her and your father that their financial situation is worrying you both because your mom is not going to have enough money to live on but also because that is going to threaten your own retirement and the well being of your nieces and nephews by sapping your savings.

bugbear said...

Also tell her you feel like all the work of generations who have worked to put them in the position of being economically secure for their retirement years is being dissipated instead of being used for essential things that they need--that story about your family's economic history is a fascinating and insightful one.

bugbear said...

@ "I also point out that while she may spend $100 on an upgrade, she'll only get a 75% return when she sells the house, etc."

That was true in the housing bubble. But the return on upgrades like this is much less these days. Buyers don't normally value our upgrades the same as we do, often because they have different preferences. Someone's beautiful new bathroom or shower could be a new buyer's tearout.

bugbear said...

@ my earlier comment: "Tell her and your father that their financial situation is worrying you both because your mom is not going to have enough money to live on but also because that is going to threaten your own retirement and the well being of your nieces and nephews by sapping your savings."


I would add the thought(to yourself, silently, at least, and perhaps at some point out loud verbiage to her, if it becomes necessary, that "and I an scared because I for one am not going to let that happen. It's one thing to provide you the support I'd like to provide if unforeseen circumstances happen, but completely different when it is absolutely foreseeable but not acted upon."


I don't know if this helps or not, these are just my thoughts.

bugbear said...

@ "and I know that he would agree with me on all this if he had the mental energy to listen to any of it"


hmmm.

good luck X.