Money and Aging: When’s a Good Time To Talk?

Talking with parents about money and aging can be hard. Before I was grown, I asked how much my parents paid for stuff, how much money they made, how much they had, and if we were rich yet. They answered appropriately for my age, and level of interest. When I was 9, I made my first budget, (yeah, sad). When I got the huge tax disappointment in my first paycheck at age 15, I asked more questions. So it’s no surprise that both of my parents were open with me about their estate planning. With me as a daughter, there was no avoiding the subject.

However, a lot of families are not wired this way. One of the questions good financial planners ask is, “Might you have to care for anyone in the future, either physically or financially?” Sometimes people with parents in their 80s and 90s have no idea what kind of resources they have left. More common responses are, “Um, I think they’re pretty well off.” Or, “My mother will probably have to move in with me or my siblings, but I’m not sure.”

So whether you are an adult child with an aging parent, or an aging parent with adult children, how do you have a conversation about money that you have never had before? Perhaps you are afraid there might be hurt feelings. What if someone can’t handle the emotion that comes up? What if the conversation permanently alters the relationship in a way you never intended?

Professional Guidelines for a Difficult Conversation

According to Ken Donaldson, LMHC, with a difficult subject like money and aging it’s best to follow a few simple guidelines:

1)  Have all interested parties present for the conversation.

2) Own the difficulty of the subject. Say something like, “I want to talk about something important, but I’m afraid there might be hurt feelings.” Or, “I have something I want to ask, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression or offend you.”

3) Don’t mess around; get straight to the point. If you are the child, you might say, “Mom, Dad, we’ve never talked about this, but, as you are aging, I am wondering what kind of resources you have to see you through your later years, and if you might need help.” If you are the parent, you might say, “Son, Daughter, we’ve never talked about this, but I need to let you know what my financial situation is.”

Take It In Steps

As a result, you may discover something uncomfortable. For example, one party may need financial help from the other. Or, there might be different ideas about what’s “fair.” So, if you believe the conversation may lead to an uncomfortable place, then the sooner it’s had, the better.

Remember, opening this can of worms doesn’t mean a solution has to be found that moment. Enlist all parties involved to commit to figuring out the best solution together. Most families (though not all) share the same goal – allowing parents to define what it means to age comfortably. Once that’s understood, how to make it happen can be the next step.

The best time to talk about money and aging is, well, anytime (although not necessarily with a 9 year old). But the sooner you start, the easier it will be.

For more on money and aging, see Chapter 4 of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future.

Holly Donaldson

Holly P. Donaldson, CFP® writes and consults on the psychology of money. Her fee-only, product-free financial planning practice focuses on increasing financial self-efficacy for those seeking a financial navigator to help them make good decisions. She is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, she primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States.

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