In response to our recent post about having “The Talk” with older parents about their finances, several readers wrote in with tips and suggestions. Here’s one particularly insightful response from Holly Hamilton, a 32-year-old English teacher living in South Korea, about her experience initiating the awkward conversation with her mother.
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I heard an excellent quote from radio host Dave Ramsey that said, “In an effort to be ‘nice’ I used to be unclear. It is unkind to be unclear: Be a gentle truth teller.” While I don’t always succeed at the “gentle” part, I am relatively straightforward most of the time with my opinions. Most people know where I stand. That said, talking about money with one’s parents is never an easy task. But, I am of the opinion it’s absolutely necessary. It’s really about managing expectations for the good of everyone involved.
I grew up in the South watching my father make every financial mistake under the sun, only to end up currently under-employed and completely dependent upon the government for his every need. His inability to manage financial matters was one of the causes of my parent’s divorce years more than 15 years ago. I have watched my dad’s situation get worse over the last 4 years from my current home, South Korea.
I am an English teacher here, 3 months pregnant, and happily married to a wonderful Korean businessman. We are financially supporting my husband’s parents, my in-laws, every month. South Korea has a virtually non-existent social security system for its senior citizens. Most Koreans we know who are my husband’s generation and older are just expected to support their parents financially until their death.
Given all of this, I decided to bite the bullet about a year ago and email my mom in the states, who is now remarried. I didn’t want to pry but I did want to be sure she at least had a plan or was at the very least taking the steps necessary now to ensure her own financial well-being later in life. Some of the questions I asked her were:
- “Do you have a will?” (And, I hope you have a good executor too!)
- “Do you have long-term care insurance? If not, why? You’re healthy, aren’t you? Did you know that statistically you have a very high probability of needing some kind of nursing care after age 60? Do you really want to pay for a nursing home or hospice out of pocket? I would love to help you should you need it but I will not be able to financially afford medical care for you and support my in-laws from here in South Korea. You really need long-term care insurance for your own well-being. ”
- “What will happen if, God forbid, your spouse dies before you or vice-versa? Are you planning on staying in your current home forever or downsizing later on?”
- Are you willing to meet with a financial planner to discuss your financial future?”
I tried to cover a lot of topics as thoroughly and as diplomatically as possible. I didn’t get into any power of attorney questions or any long-term budgeting and saving questions, although I wish I had. I tried to make it clear to her I didn’t have all the answers and if possible she and her spouse should meet with a financial advisor to cover these issues in more detail. I didn’t get into any inheritance questions because truthfully it’s not my business and she had already told me before that all of her assets would be split among her remaining family members.
The whole point of the conversation was to make sure that my mom could take care of herself should something happen to her or her spouse and that she is prepared for every worst case scenario. The absolute last thing I want is to get a phone call at 3am from someone in the USA saying, “Your mom has [fill in the blank]. She has no assets, significant debt, and no plan. What do you think we should do now?”
Again, it’s not about being morbid or creating fear or controlling someone –it’s about making sure they are set up for success. If she takes enough time now to plan ahead and meet with the necessary parties she needs to meet with, then later the worst-case scenarios don’t have to be emotionally overwhelming rollercoaster rides for everyone.
I really hoped to communicate to her that any expectations she had for me or for anyone other than herself or her spouse had to be eradicated—not because her family and friends won’t help her in an emergency, but because financial independence should be a goal for all of us. No one wants to be a victim or a beggar or dependent on “the kindness of strangers” later in life when they are the most vulnerable. That’s no way to have any dignity during your golden years. Taking control of one’s destiny, making a plan, and realistically preparing for the future are all ingredients necessary for creating a successful and happy financial future.
My mom did not respond with a great deal of glee or enthusiasm. I think she was pretty indignant I would even talk to her about her own financial affairs to begin with. I could tell from the tone of her email. I do believe she understood the importance of what I was talking about with her because our entire family had experienced the serious repercussions of my father’s financial irresponsibility for decades.
Looking back, I realize serious discussions like this go much better if done in person or over the phone. I should have also started out my discussion by “asking permission” if I could talk with her about something that was really bothering me. I think all of that might have made our conversation go much smoother, but maybe not. Talking about money with one’s parents is never an easy topic but I still believe it is one that is absolutely essential for the well-being of the entire family.