Cetting Through to Reluctant Parents: Success Stories
Some people will read this book, use one of the conversation starters I provided in €hapter 7, and easily get their parents to start sharing details about their finances. For some, it will be a lot tougher.
As I wrote in €hapter s, there are several reasons parents might be reluctant to talk about money with their kids. You might be thinking, “Lucky me, just about every one of those reasons applies to my parents. How am I ever going to get through to them? Mom changes the subject every time I bring it up, and Dad tells me to mind my own business.”
€ertainly, if you’re getting a lot of pushback, it probably doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort to try to have conversations with your parents about their finances. But if you’re willing to keep working at it, your efforts might pay off, as they did for Jen and Joel. Both have parents who’ve made their share of financial mistakes and, for that reason, don’t like talking about money. But neither Jen nor Joel wanted to sit by idly and watch their parents struggle financially. So they didn’t let their parents’ reluctance to talk stop them from trying.
Little by little, Jen and Joel have been able to get their parents to open up about their finances so they can help them take steps to start managing their money better. They both admit that there still is work to be done. But their stories show that there is hope for getting through to even the most reluctant of parents. They also illustrate why it’s important to start talking to your parents sooner rather than later because it can take time–in some cases, a lot of time – to make any progress.
For Jen, getting
her mom to open up about her finances is still a work in progress. It hasn’t
been easy to get as far as she has, but Jen has been
persistent because she knows her mom is struggling and wants to help her get her finances on track before it’s too late.
Jen’s family never talked about money while she was growing up. “I just assumed my parents were doing okay,” she said. “From what I knew, we never had debt, never used credit cards. My parents didn’t make a lot of money, but we also didn’t do a lot of expensive things.”
However, Jen’s dad developed cirrhosis – a liver disease – when she was 1s and started receiving disability benefits. When he died in 2006 when Jen was 16, his disability checks stopped coming, and Jen’s mom didn’t know what to do without that second source of income. “Everything had been right at the brink and they were just making it,” she said. That’s when everything started going downhill financially for her mom.
Jen knew her mom wasn’t making much money and actually didn’t work for several months in 2011 and 2012 while she was caring for Jen’s grandmother. When Jen moved back home with her mom after finishing graduate school in 2012, she could see that her mom’s spending habits were not sustainable. “I knew she couldn’t be well off,” Jen said. “I knew she couldn’t be saving for retirement. I just didn’t know the extent of what was going on.” She tried to ask, but her mom didn’t want to talk about money because she was filled with a lot of guilt and shame, Jen said.
Jen, on the other hand, was taking charge of her finances. She got married in 2015, and both she and her husband were trying to pay off their student loans as fast as possible. Jen even created a blog, ModernFrugality.com,1 in 2016 to write about how she and her husband were eliminating $78,000 in debt. She would share some of her money-saving strategies with her mom as a way to get her talking about money. Sometimes that worked. “I learned that was a better way to approach it than asking probing questions,” Jen said.
While some of her family members were visiting from out of town, Jen
was discussing what she and her husband had done to take control of their
finances and mentioned that they had read financial guru Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover book.2 A cousin
said she had taken one of Ramsey’s money courses. So Jen took advantage of that
moment to ask her mom if she would like to take Ramsey’s nine-week “Financial
Peace University” course with her. For years, she had been asking her mom to
take the course but never had any luck getting her to agree. But Jen assumed that her mom might be motivated to take the course this time because her cousin, who was doing well financially, was recommending it. “Having it come from somebody else – I’m learning parents don’t take lessons from their children well,” Jen said. And she was right – her mom agreed to take the class.
“I wanted to take this journey with her and support her in any way that I could,” Jen said. But after every class when Jen asked her mom what she thought about what they were being taught, her mom was silent. At the end of the course in November 2016, though, she finally opened up. “She was like, ‘I don’t feel like I can change any of that stuff. I’m set in my ways.
This is who I am,’” Jen said. It led to an emotional outpouring, which made Jen realize that there was a lot more to her mom’s financial problems than just money. “I didn’t know there was so much behind that,” Jen said. “It was really surprising.”
However, Jen didn’t learn about how bad things really were for her mom until 2017. She and her husband were in the market for their first home, so Jen was spending a lot time looking at real estate listings online. That’s when she discovered that her mom’s house was listed as a foreclosure.
What’s worse, it had been in foreclosure for more than 900 days.
“I was like, ‘Mom, what’s going on?” Jen said. Her mom said it was a mistake and laughed it off. Jen knew she wasn’t going to get any answers then, but she wasn’t ready to give up. Within a few months, Jen’s mom finally admitted that her house was in foreclosure. Jen helped her have a yard sale and move into an inexpensive one-bedroom apartment. She also encouraged her mom to learn more about the 401(k) retirement plan her employer offered. “She did that and started contributing a portion of her income to her company’s 401(k),” Jen said. “She was really proud. I was proud of her, too, and I let her know it was really cool she did that.”
because her mom has so little saved for retirement, Jen knows that she’ll need
to work as long as she physically can. But her mom’s health issues might make
that difficult. So Jen has been offering her mom tips – such as suggestions
that she exercise more and eat healthier – so she can improve her health and
Since taking the money course, Jen’s mom has been shopping less and thinking about her purchases more. And she asked Jen for help with making meal plans because Jen has self-published a book on Amazon about the money-saving benefits of meal planning. “I don’t think she executed the meal plan, but she did approach me and ask,” Jen said.
Despite her mom’s progress in some areas, Jen still sees her mom making financial missteps. But rather than criticize her, Jen said she tries to diplomatically offer her suggestions. “I’ve had to learn to pick my battles more. I used to pick every battle,” Jen said. “That just pushed her away. It was more destructive than it was constructive.”
Jen also knows that there are a lot more financial conversations she needs to have with her mom – such as whether she has a will or a living will that spells out what sort of medical care she would want if she’s unable to decide on her own. “Those conversations are next on our list,” she said.
Nonetheless, Jen said she feels like she’s come a long way in getting her mom to open up, thanks to the money course they took together.
LESSON: It goes to show that getting a third party involved can get a reluctant parent to start talking about their finances (as I wrote in Chapter 14). And Jen’s experience shows that offering to help with financial tasks – rather than asking probing questions – can make money conversations easier.
Joel’s parents often argued about money when he was younger. They were struggling because his dad had lost his job and was bouncing from one low- paying job to another. “That led to a lot of financial issues in the household,” Joel said. In fact, it got so bad that his parents declared bankruptcy when he was 1s.
a lot of stigma and shame,” he said. As a result, money wasn’t something his
parents wanted to discuss – not even with each other. But Joel said that his parents’ bankruptcy taught him a
valuable lesson. “I decided after seeing that growing up that I wanted to have
my finances buttoned up,” he said. “I don’t want to have an issue in my
marriage like my parents had in
theirs just because of money.” So he
and his wife talk
frequently – at least weekly, often daily – about their finances. Joel even shares financial advice with others through his podcast, How to Money.s But conversations with his parents have been a struggle.
“When it comes to talking to my parents now about their finances, it’s definitely not easy,” Joel said. “I would say because of their rocky past with money, it’s something you have to handle with great care.”
Initially, he didn’t handle those conversations with care. Joel admits that when he first started trying to talk with his parents about financial matters when he was in his early 20s and they were in their early 50s, he came on too strong. “I probably turned them away a little bit in the beginning,” he said. “I probably wanted to fix all of their finances for them – which is not what anybody wants.”
Thinking he knew more about money than his parents did and then trying to correct their mistakes backfired. Joel realizes now that his parents just wanted him to understand and empathize with their struggles, not fix their investing strategy. But it took him a while, he said, “to come down off my high horse and begin to have an honest and caring conversation.”
Actually, it took about three to four years for Joel to develop the right approach and get his parents to discuss anything financial. The way he did it was by finding small ways that he could offer to help them. For example, shortly after he got married, Joel had jaw surgery and stayed with his parents for a few days to recover. They got into a conversation about his parents’ bank, and he learned that the bank was charging them a monthly maintenance fee of $18 to $20. So he offered to help them switch to another account without a monthly fee. He then offered to help them find other ways to save money, such as cutting the cable cord.
Joel’s been able to expand the conversations from specific bills and ways to
save to how his parents think about money and prioritize spending. “It gets
into, ‘You said you wanted to travel for all these years, but you don’t travel.
Why is that? Why don’t you prioritize that with the money you have?’” he said.
“I want to hear what their priorities are. I want to hear what they care
about.” But Joel said he also wants to be able to help his parents. So when
they say that they value something, he asks them if the way they’re spending
money is aligning with what they value.
Those sorts of questions open the door to better conversations and ways for Joel to offer to help his parents improve their finances. “I know that money has been a huge issue for them over the years,” he said. “I know the peace I’ve had in my marriage because of my relationship with money. I want that for my parents. I see them having a healthier approach to their finances. It’s encouraging. I want to see that for them because I know the stranglehold money can have on your life when you use it poorly.”
Plus, as selfish as it might seem, Joel said he wants his parents to get their finances in order to make things easier for him and his siblings. “I want them to be prepared because when a parent does pass away and their finances are in shambles, it creates a lot of issues for the kids,” he said. “So that’s in the back of my mind. But more than anything, I want them to thrive. I want them to have a healthy approach to money because I know how good it’s been for me, and I want that for them.”
That’s why he keeps pushing them – gently – to keep talking about their finances. Sometimes the conversations last just five minutes. Sometimes they talk for s0 minutes or more at the dinner table. And sometimes his parents even come to Joel for advice. Now that they’re in their 60s and thinking about retirement, Joel’s parents are asking him at what age they should start collecting Social Security benefits (his answer: the longer they wait, the bigger their monthly check will be). His dad has asked whether he should take his pension from his employer as a lump sum or steady payouts over time. Joel talked his mom into increasing her contribution to her retirement plan at work. And when they bought a new house, he talked them into getting a 15-year mortgage instead of a s0-year-mortgage so they wouldn’t have to keep making a big monthly payment well into retirement.
Joel said those sorts of conversations wouldn’t be possible with his parents if he hadn’t spent years getting them comfortable discussing money matters. You can’t just ask your parents out of the blue to share details about their finances and expect them to open up. “You can only get answers to those questions if you’ve invested the time,” Joel said.
There’s a lot
more Joel would like to discuss with his parents about their finances. “But I’m
trying to walk that healthy balance of not being a nag and not pissing my
parents off because I love them very much,” he said. At
least, the conversation pathways are open, he said. “We’re able to have a back-and-forth, a discussion.”