Reasons Your Parents Might Be Reluctant to Talk
Amanda knows she needs to start talking to her parents about their finances but is reluctant to have the conversation. They’ve been hard workers most of their lives but haven’t been high earners. Her mom stayed at home with her and her two sisters until they started school. She then had jobs at McDonald’s and Blake’s Lotaburger while going to school herself to become a paralegal. She worked for the same attorney as a paralegal for 25 years until 2017, when his health issues forced him to downsize his practice and he let her go. Since then, she’s been helping care for her elderly mother, her husband’s father, and her niece’s young children, and she’s been doing some side work for another attorney.
Amanda’s dad has worked in a variety of jobs, including a correctional officer at a prison and a lab worker in a refinery. €urrently, he works with a county property assessor’s office but might lose his job because the county is facing bankruptcy.
“Although my parents have always been frugal and have been careful with money, they are at a place where they are really feeling anxious about their finances,” Amanda said. “They have a private retirement account, and my dad should have some retirement benefits through his employment.
However, I honestly have no idea how much they have. My parents do not like to share their financial information with us.”
In fact, Amanda’s parents taught her and her sisters as they were growing up that talking about finances is taboo. They trained them to avoid questions about money by changing the subject. Given her parents’ current situation, Amanda said she is concerned about their financial future. But she knows they’ll be reluctant to talk to her.
John remembers that, when he was growing
up, his parents never talked about money. If it came up during a conversation,
they would find a way to
change the subject. Or they would “talk about how they always got screwed in some way with money,” he said.
Like many people in their generation, John’s parents were taught not to talk about money. They held onto that belief and refused to discuss financial matters with John and his sisters when they were young. Money conversations didn’t get any easier as the kids got older. But it wasn’t just because John’s parents believed that that money was a taboo topic. John said the real reason his parents have avoided talking about money over the years is because they have been ashamed of how they’ve mismanaged it.
When John was young, his parents made a lot of money. But they spent even more, he said. So they struggled financially. Their overspending was so bad that they raided John’s bank account when he was 17 and took every penny he had saved for college because they claimed they needed help paying bills.
John’s parents are now divorced and still are struggling financially, he said. His father has been unemployed for more than 10 years and has been living with one of John’s sisters. His mom still works and likely will have to as long as she can because she can’t afford to retire. John – who is a successful entrepreneur – has tried to help them get a better handle on their finances.
But he said their shame and pride have gotten in the way of having fruitful conversations.
Some parents will openly discuss their finances with their adult children, but plenty – like Amanda’s and John’s parents – will balk at the conversation. However, knowing what might be behind your parents’ unwillingness to talk might help you identify the best way to start a conversation. Why? Think of it as putting yourself in their shoes – an expression you likely heard from your parents throughout your childhood. If you can imagine thinking about money the way your parents do, you can approach the topic in a way that won’t make them uncomfortable or put them on the defensive.
So how do you actually do that? Start by determining whether any of
these common reasons older adults can be reluctant to talk about money apply to
THEY THINK MONEY IS A TABOO TOPIC
Think back to your childhood. Did your parents typically tell you it’s not polite to talk about money? Maybe that was the response you got when you asked how much they earned, how much the family car cost, or whether your family was rich or poor.
It’s common for older generations to shy away from the topic of money because they’ve been taught it is taboo, said Dr. Brad Klontz,1 a financial psychologist. “Parents would rather talk to their kids about sex than money,” he said. So if you remember that asking Mom and Dad money questions made them even more uncomfortable than asking about the birds and the bees, recognize that they’re likely clinging to a deep-seated conviction that conversations about money are off-limits.
If that’s the case, don’t make your initial attempts at having financial conversations with your parents about money. In €hapter 7, I provide some conversation starters that don’t involve tackling the topic of money head on but can get your parents to open up about their finances over time.
THEY DON’T WANT ROLES TO BE REVERSED
Parents have a strong instinct to care for their children. That instinct doesn’t disappear once their children are grown. So it can feel like the tables are being turned on them when their kids want to talk about how to care for them or help them with financial matters, said Dr. Mary Gresham,2 a financial psychologist. “That’s a place that goes against the grain,” she said.
Parents don’t want to have to think about having to depend on their children. So that’s why they might balk at conversations that force them to consider this scenario. But if you can frame the reversal of care in positive terms, you might have more luck getting them to talk.
When initiating a
conversation, let your parents know that
you’re grateful that they took care of you when you were young and that you
want to be able to return that care if they need it. You can tell them that in order to do
that, you need to know what sort of care they would want. Let
them know that you realize this might be difficult for them to think about or discuss. Gresham recommends saying something like, “I know this is a hard conversation. It’s upsetting to me, too, but I still want to have it. Think of it as a gift to me.”
THEY FEAR THE CONVERSATION WILL UPSET YOU
Your parents might be dodging conversations about their finances because they’re afraid you won’t like what they have to say. This could likely be the case if you’ve been trying to talk to them about their wills and estate plans, and they’ve consistently balked at discussing this topic.
Parents are often secretive about what’s in their wills because they’re worried their kids will get mad if they find out they’re not inheriting as much as they think, Gresham said. Your parents might be planning to leave their money to a charity. Or they might be planning to give more to one of your siblings – perhaps because they feel he needs more financial support than you do. But they don’t want you to know because they’re afraid it will hurt your relationship with them.
Gresham said she’s had clients who’ve said they know that the way they’ve planned to distribute assets among their kids when they die could put a strain on the relationships between siblings. They avoid telling their kids what’s in their wills so fights won’t erupt while they’re still living. They say that once they die and the kids find out who gets what, they won’t have to deal with the fallout. Talk about kicking the can down the road. But it’s understandable that they want to avoid confrontation.
If you suspect that your parents are avoiding money conversations because they don’t want to upset you, let them know that you think your relationship with them – and your siblings – is strong enough to talk freely. And tell them you realize it’s their money and they can do with it what they want but it would be great to have some insight into their plans so there aren’t surprises.
Or keep money
out of the conversation. Let your parents know that you’re not interested in
how much you will inherit, Klontz said. Instead, tell them, “We just want to
make sure we’re clear on what your wishes are with your
estate.” Show them that you want to make sure that those wishes are granted. See €hapter 10 to learn more about essential legal documents.
THEY’RE WORRIED ABOUT LOSINC THEIR INDEPENDENCE
Remember when you started driving? You could go where you wanted when you wanted. You had freedom. You had independence. Or perhaps it was when you got your first job and had your own money that you started to feel independent. Maybe it was when you graduated from college and entered the real world.
Being independent is a great feeling, and wanting to be autonomous is a deep human drive, Gresham said. So if you start talking to your parents about their future, it’s natural for them to be reluctant to think about and discuss a time when they might no longer be independent. Planning for a time when they can’t do things on their own represents a huge loss of status. They could be thinking, “When I give you this information, I could lose control,” Gresham said.
That’s why it’s so important to make it clear to your parents when talking to them about their finances that you don’t want to take control and deprive them of their independence. Let them stay in charge by asking them to make a list of potential situations in which they would need support from you and what would need to happen. You could tell them you’re giving them control because they’re deciding if and when you should step in – and to what extent. However, if your parents already are at the point where they need assistance with day-to-day living and are no longer capable of living independently, see €hapters 12 and 1s for tips on talking to them about long-term care and when it’s time to move.
THEY’RE EMBARRASSED ABOUT THEIR FINANCES
Like John’s parents, your parents might be ashamed about the state
of their finances. Maybe they’re deep in debt, have no savings, are living
paycheck to paycheck, or have no idea how they’ll ever be able to afford to
talking to you about money means admitting that they’ve done things wrong
- something they probably don’t want to do.
They’re probably afraid that you’ll judge them or criticize them for not having their financial act together. Shame often prevents people from talking openly about money. So if you suspect that your parents are embarrassed about their financial situation, you’ll need to tread lightly.
Gresham recommends trying this approach: “I understand you’re avoiding this topic with me. I’ve brought it up three or four times. I want to understand your reluctance. Are you concerned I might judge you if you don’t have it all organized? Are you concerned I might look at you differently if you don’t have as much as I think?” Reassure your parents that you won’t judge them and that you just want to help. I provide more details on getting through to reluctant parents in €hapter 14 and share stories in €hapter 15 from people who’ve been able to get parents who are embarrassed about their finances to open up to them.
THEY DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT ACINC AND DEATH
In €hapter 1, I included a quote from Noah, who said he was afraid to talk to his parents about whether they had a will because it meant facing the fact that they will die someday. Your parents might be avoiding your attempts to talk about estate planning, long-term care, or their financial future for the same reason. It forces them to think about aging and death.
Some people even think that talking about their death will make it happen sooner rather than later. You probably already know if your parents fall into this category because they say things like, “We don’t talk about that in our house” or “When your father dies, God forbid …” as if some higher power will prevent him from dying. An estate law attorney I know said that she often hears from clients that they’re afraid they’ll die once she drafts an estate plan for them. She then jokes with them that she doesn’t have that kind of power.
In all seriousness, though,
death can be a scary topic for a lot of people. Respect that your parents could be afraid of confronting their
mortality. But have the courage to tell them – in a caring, not mocking,
way – that having conversations about whether they have a will or what their final wishes are won’t hasten their death. In fact, Gresham said that research shows that the more people are aware of and able to talk about their death, the better they’ll be able to come to terms with it and feel less anxious about their future.
THEY DON’T TRUST YOU
I hate to say this, but your parents might not want to talk to you about their finances because they don’t trust you. You might not have given them any reason to question your intentions. It’s just tough, in general, to trust someone else with financial information. As people age, they tend to become even more mistrustful.
Gresham said that when her mother was still alive, she took her to Blockbuster to open an account so she could rent videos. A store employee asked Gresham’s mom for her Social Security number as part of the registration process. “She got really upset and said she’d never share it ‘with the likes of you,’” Gresham said. “She lost her temper and left.”
Fear of being taken advantage of is common among older adults – and for good reason. Research by True Link Financials found that seniors lose
$s6.5 billion a year to elder financial abuse in the form of scams,
misleading financial advice, and theft by family members or caregivers. If your parents are mistrustful, ask them under what circumstances they would feel more comfortable talking to you about their finances. They might be more willing to have a conversation with their accountant, attorney, financial planner, or other third party present.
However, your parents might not want to speak with you about their finances under any circumstances if you’ve given them reason to believe they can’t trust you. Perhaps you’ve mismanaged your own finances or borrowed money from them and never repaid it. In that case, you might not be the best person to have a money talk with your parents. If you have a sibling your parent is more likely to trust, ask him or her to initiate the conversation. €hapter 5 has tips on talking to your siblings about money conversations with your parents.