Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This last two years have forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
If you'd like to share your own experience (good or bad) with supporting a parent financially, we'd love to hear from you.
I am 29 years old and a manager at a medical clinic. I have been a super saver. After either paying rent or bills, I max out my Roth IRA with $250 every month (my job doesn’t offer a 401k or retirement benefits) and put $450 monthly into my investment account and, most recently, a high-yield savings account that is funding my future down payment for a home. This is how I force myself to live “paycheck to paycheck.”
I've been doing everything myself and I am actually pretty proud, but I know I can do better. However, I am also a first-generation child, meaning retirement plans weren’t something my parents really planned for. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad, who worked as a computer operator, passed away. He left us some money, about $80,000, but it was taxed once my mom withdrew it from his retirement funds, so we have maybe $40k left.
My mom has been working as a nanny recently. She’s in her mid-50s, so I don’t see her retiring anytime soon. But I realize now that my brother and I are going to be my mom’s retirement fund. I am angry and frustrated, but I also feel selfish for feeling this way while my other friends have parents who have been saving for retirement and investing. How do I start a conversation with my mom about her retirement planning and money talk, without sounding frustrated at the disappointment since she is so unprepared? I think she believes that my dad’s Social Security will cover everything, WHICH IT ISN'T SUPPOSED TO, but I don't think she understands that. She even wants me to pitch in for some dental work that isn’t covered by Medicare.
If I’m going to be her retirement account, I don't want to pay for dental work because that isn't a priority at the moment. I just have a feeling even telling her that will lead to a confrontation about how bad a daughter I am. We currently live with each other and split everything down the middle. Am I a shitty daughter?
Dear soon-to-be sandwich generation child,
A parent relying on you as their retirement plan can have huge implications on your financial health. Our world already feels uncertain, and having the added financial responsibility is stressful. Seeing as our country lacks social safety nets, even some folks who have diligently planned and saved (invested) for retirement can find themselves worrying about their financial futures.
You’re making excellent money moves. You’re clearly a person who looks for their agency despite their circumstances, and you’re approaching your financial reality with eyes wide open. This is already a great start.
Here are some things you can do to help you face your financial situation head on:
Turn worry into action
Get your mom on the same page and work towards a common goal. One way to do this is to approach the subject with unified detachment. Frame conversations about money as a team working against a shared problem. For example, “What can we do about our financial situation?” and “What are our options for managing dental costs effectively? What can we prioritize now and what can we put off for later?”
Schedule weekly finance time
In addition to having a framework for having money conversations, have them often. I always recommend that folks prioritize their finances by scheduling a regular cadence of weekly finance time. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a block of time (30 minutes to an hour) each week that you dedicate to dealing with your financial life. Weekly finance time allows you and your mom to connect regularly about money. You’ll get better at talking about money by practicing it. It also helps relieve stress throughout your daily life because when a financial worry pops into your mind, you know that you have dedicated the time to address it.
Make sure you have an emergency fund
You didn’t mention an emergency fund, but likely it’s because you have already fully funded yours. In addition to your emergency fund — a savings account containing at least three but as much as 12 months' worth of your expenses — consider one for your mom.
It’s not uncommon for folks with financially unstable relatives to establish family emergency funds in the event they want to help their families. There isn’t a right way to do this. You could help your mom get hers set up and explain how to fund it, for instance, from her earnings or from the money your father left her. Or you, your mom, and your brother could all work on funding it together. For some, this might be a financial boundary they aren’t willing to cross. For others, the idea of a financial boundary isn’t so clear-cut because of their cultural expectations. Regardless of your decision, make sure you have your own emergency fund first.
Good on you for managing your spending and being such a super saver. Investing $700/month at 29 years old is an excellent start. I used this very simple investment calculator to run some quick and dirty numbers. If you invest $700/month for ten years, and we assume a 7.5% return, you’ll have roughly $125k. In 20 years, assuming the same rate of return and monthly contributions, you’ll have approximately $388k. Over those 20 years, if your earnings increase, hopefully your contributions can too. More contributions would change these figures, but based on your current contributions, you may amass a million dollars by the time you’re 60. Disclaimer: These are just rough numbers I plugged into a calculator. It’s not a guarantee of returns, nor is it investment advice. It’s an illustration to help you see that you’re doing pretty damn well and to encourage you to keep going. In addition to investing your money in the market, keep investing in yourself; educate yourself and acquire knowledge as you go.
Keep track of your net worth
Use a tool that helps you track your net worth (the value of your assets, like cash and investments minus your debts) and can make more nuanced projections than the ones I did above. I like and personally use Personal Capital, but there are other great ones out there; it’s just a matter of finding the one you prefer. Net worth is a measure of wealth and financial wellness. Wealth creates flexibility and options, but it can also generate income for you and your family.
Plan for the long-term
Consider hiring a fee-only financial planner specializing in helping first-generation women who will consider your values, like family support. Insurance is another way to plan for the long term. Insurance mitigates your exposure to risk (and is something a financial planner will help you with). Look into long-term disability and life insurance. Long-term disability insurance would replace your income if you could not work for an extended period. A life insurance policy would replace your income if anything were to happen to you.
If your employer doesn’t have these policies, independent policies are available. Long-term care insurance is another form of insurance that could be helpful if your mom needs long-term care, but this type of insurance can often be prohibitively expensive.
Don’t underestimate your ability to earn more
Earning more doesn’t always mean working more or having to rise and grind. It’s a matter of understanding what options are available and weighing their true cost. Sometimes an income bump requires a job or industry change. This might not be ideal, but when you optimize for income, you might exchange one problem for another. For example, maybe you earn more money, but your current job plays a big role in your identity, so changing that piece could be challenging. Either way, it’s important to know that you have options.
Know your boundaries
Where’s the line between having firm financial boundaries and being supportive of your family? The answer is different for everyone. Something culturally normal for one person, like offering financial support to their parents or living with parents, could be perceived as a lack of boundaries to another. Understand your boundaries so you can communicate them and set expectations.
Take responsibility for your feelings
Before you talk to your mom and turn worry into action, spend some time understanding and feeling your feelings. I’m not a psychologist or mental health professional, but it doesn’t take a degree in those subjects to understand that money is a very emotional topic. You’re entitled to your feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment, but you don’t want them to hijack the conversation. Money is already a very charged topic. Bringing in our unchecked emotions doesn’t make it easier to talk about.
You also mentioned worrying about feeling like a shitty daughter and being selfish. I think trying to unpack those feelings could take the worry out of them. Once you realize why you have this belief, you can work to rewrite it. Maybe you feel this way because your mom made financial sacrifices for you and if you don’t do the same, then she might think you don’t love her. Or maybe that’s not it at all. You have to be the one to discover and take responsibility for your own feelings.
There are many ways you can go about dealing with your feelings, from talk therapy and journaling, to meditation and hypnotherapy. Know that there are options out there, including many that are affordable and available on a sliding scale. What’s important is to find ways to heal and integrate your emotions into your daily life so they aren’t taking over.
I’m a first-generation American, too. I’ve watched my privileged friends make better decisions because of what their parents taught them and could afford. They knew the importance of hiring an SAT tutor and could afford multiple college application fees. Many graduated without student loan debt, and then received cash for weddings, for down payments on homes, and inheritances to cement their financial stability. Every so often, I wonder how much further along I’d be if my parents could’ve done those things for me.
I’ve learned to look at my parents’ financial decisions with perspective and compassion. Even though there’s a long list of things I wish they’d taught me or done themselves, I’ve come to understand that they were doing their best with what they had.
Your finance friend,
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