Sunday, April 30, 2006

Financial Genetics: My Mom, part 2

So in the previous posts, I pretty much set the scene: a very traditional marriage where the husband makes all the money and controls all the finances, and the wife raises the kids and takes care of the house. They're a bit mismatched culturally, and very mismatched philosophically, intellectually, and in many other ways too.

A few examples:
Mom wants Dad to buy new clothes. Dad says his clothes are fine. Mom says "but back when we were dating you dressed so well!" Dad says "well, I'm still wearing the exact same clothes I had when we were dating, so what's the problem?" (That was at least a moment when he had a sense of humor about it.)
Mom sees an infomercial about some pills made out of Japanese sea coral or something like that, and orders them. Dad hits the roof. Mom says "but they say they really work!" Dad says "They? Who's they? Commercials LIE! All those pills are is calcium. You can get generic calcium at CVS for 1/30th the price of these."
Dad talks about saving money for retirement. Mom says "you can't save everything for a rainy day!"
Dad talks more about saving money for retirement. Mom says "God will provide!" Dad says "God doesn't exist. I provide."

So, no surprise, she eventually wants a divorce. They see a mediator. My father is very reluctant to share all the documentation about his finances. When he does, my mother lights up, seeing some number she thinks is huge. She tells me about this a bit later and I try to explain to her that she has to at least divide that number by 20 to imagine it as a yearly income during their retirement. She brushes this aside, just thinking he's loaded and doesn't want to give her any money. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of how much it would cost them to get a divorce and how they would have to sell the house to be able to split their assets, they come to some agreement and decide stay together. By this point, my mother has started working for the first time since before she was married, probably just to get out of the house as much as to have the income of her own.

But after a few years, it's still not working. My mother has stopped working and my father has retired, though he's still working part-time. Both my parents have been dealing with health problems. The stress of dealing with each other makes things worse, and by this point my little sister is married so they can finally let go of the idea that they have to "stay together for the children." I get a phone call from my mom one day, asking me to lend her money. She's found an apartment, she's going to move out and she needs money to hire a lawyer to negotiate things with my Dad, either a divorce or some kind of separation. (I wrote about my dilemma a bit in this post.) I did not lend her the money, and suggested that she just try to calmly discuss the situation with my dad, perhaps in a letter. She was only going to be moving about a mile away, and was still willing to clean the house for him and take care of him if he was sick, and I thought he would enjoy living apart just as much as she would. She told me she planned to ask him for an allowance of $2000 a month, because "I seem to run up that much on the credit card every month anyway, so what difference will it make to him?" Mom ended up taking my advice and talking to my dad without a lawyer. He didn't take it well, but ended up agreeing to give her a lump sum and an allowance, though it may have been a bit less than the $2000 she wanted. He also continued to pay for her leased car. I remember cautioning my mother about budgeting, but she said she just wanted to live simply and peacefully and that everything would be fine. This is where everything starts to go haywire.

My mother rented her apartment, for $1100 a month. About 3 months after she started paying rent, she hadn't moved in yet. The landlord had told her he would paint, and tear out some carpeting she didn't like. But then she wanted him to polish the floors. And put down new tile in the kitchen. And she really wanted nicer appliances in the kitchen... at a certain point, the landlord wisely drew the line, and my mother stupidly started paying the bills. She bought all new appliances and banished the landlord's stuff to the basement. She bought a couch. She bought an enormous flat-screen TV with the full home theater set-up. She bought about 5 sets of towels, 2 or 3 sets of silverware, tons of glassware, all new pots and pans, and every kitchen gizmo that you can imagine. She bought lamps, area rugs, and fabric for curtains that cost over $100 per yard. She put up new blinds. She got a bedroom furniture set that cost about $5000, I think. She bought prints and had them elaborately and expensively framed. She kept her fridge stocked with an abundance of food even when she wasn't entertaining.
After about a year, she had $50,000 in credit card debt.

I still can't believe it. Oddly enough, she didn't really go nuts buying clothes, and whatever she did buy was usually from Marshall's and TJ Maxx. Also, not all of her spending was totally selfish. She's always been a very generous person who buys her friends and family presents on all occasions. She also sent money and prescription medications to her mother. She visited my sister, and bought her groceries and baby stuff. But it was like she had been set loose-- all her life, she had wanted a perfect little home, a feeling of abundance. Once she got rolling, she couldn't stop.

My sister and I started to realize she was in a little over her head. Then when one of my aunts let it slip that the debt was around $12,000, we started freaking out. I confronted my mother and told her she had to fess up to my Dad and just get him to pay the bill off, fast, because he'd think it was even worse if he knew how much the interest had snowballed. She kept telling us not to worry, that she'd work it all out, and get a job again, and that somehow things would be fine. But of course time kept going by and the debt kept growing. At one point, I wondered if I should give her money to pay it off, trying to balance the guilt I'd feel if my father had a stroke against my desire to build my own nest egg. Eventually my mother did tell him, and though he didn't have a stroke, it was a pretty heavy blow. He paid the bill, she cut up her credit card and vowed to pay cash for everything and live within her means.

But she couldn't do it. Within a month or two, she'd gotten a credit card from Target and was using it to buy groceries, even though she had cut a lot of her expenses way back. My sister and I talked about how we felt as if we had a drug addict in our family. My mother tried to get work, and made a few dollars here and there, but wasn't really trying too hard to get a real job. When she heard that her mother was starting to show signs of Alzheimer's, she took it as a sign-- she gave up the apartment, sold the appliances back to the landlord (at quite a loss), gave some stuff to me and my sister (see this post for a description of my share, currently in storage until I move, with the rest of my Mom's stuff) and went "back home" to take care of her mother. She's still there, and recently rented a furnished apartment. She's been looking for a job. I recently heard from my sister that her credit card debt is over $10,000 again.

What have I learned about money from my mother? For all that I completely disagree with most of the decisions she's made, I do think she is right that you have to "live a little." Even when she has been most depressed, she has more joie de vivre in her little finger than my Dad has in his whole body. There is something to be said for not letting financial worry consume your whole life... even if she's taken that a bit too far. And there are other ways to "live a little"-- as cliched as it may sound, money doesn't buy love or happiness, which is what my mother was really after.
I've also learned from her that it's a big mistake to get into a relationship where you think some Prince Charming is going to take care of you forever. For my mom, the deal was that she would be a good wife, mother, and homemaker, and be loved and supported in return. For my father, the deal seemed to be that she should take care of the kids and keep the house and spend as little of "his" money as possible doing it. She and my father may never have seen eye to eye, but I would like to think that if he had been open with her about their finances and shared the decision making, she would have been less irresponsible, leading to him feeling less harrassed, and them both being happier. I don't think either of them ever expected to end up so unhappy, and with so little financial security.

So that's my parents, and a bit of perspective on what got me to where I am today. My father is completely embittered, thinks my mother is a lunatic and has talked about giving me some kind of power of attorney so she can't screw things up if something happens to him. My mother wishes she could go back and take care of him, if he would just be nicer to her, and replace his ratty old winter boots, and repaint the dining room, and buy a new armchair, etc. etc.... My dad is 10 years older, so I pretty much expect that he'll die first and my mom will be broke a couple of years later. And since my sister is busy with her kids, and I'm the older one who always takes care of herself, I'll end up taking care of Mom someday too. I can't complain about that, really, after the way she always took care of me, but it's frustrating to see how different things could have been.


Dawn said...

Wow, it makes me wonder about my parents future stability.... I don't think they started saving for a retirement until they were in their late 40's or possibly later.

You and your family are in my thoughts.

mapgirl said...

Hm... This sounds ongoing for you. I hope your parents can get on the same page. As we get older suddenly we see our parents differently than before and we start to notice the cracks and faultlines in their relationship. I wish you luck with your family.

Unknown said...

Interesting post.

Anonymous said...

My mom is from a working class background, and married someone from an upper-middle class background who had a lot more earning power than she did. She has made some decisions that I might not repeat, and I think she did so based on her desire for a life-of-abundance, although the decisions and circumstances were somewhat different than your mom's. But I have, like you, learned from watching her to be financially independent and that money doesn't equal happiness. This was a really interesting post.

SEO Speaker said...

Good post, very interesting. Good luck with your parents-life can get so comlicated sometimes but the good news is you surely have learned from others mistakes. Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought i was reading about my ex-wife for a while. While I don't know your family, let me defend your father for a bit. Not everyone has to be wild to feel joie de vivre. Some get pleasure with simple things. Plus dealing with someone that irresponsible tends to drain the joy out of your life. I'm hoping I can get back some of the joy I had years ago.

"My mother wishes she could go back and take care of him". Thats the exact sentiment my ex has told me. My response was "Who's going to take care of us after you take care of me?" I had to spell it out for her before she got it.

DINKs said...


Thats a hardcore story. Sometimes families have these sort of strange weird expectations regarding who should pay for what.

It doesn't sound like a great situation, but kudos to you for putting it up on the internet and although it sounds lame, good luck.


Anonymous said...

Let me just say... you are not alone.

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