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When Should You Financially Support Family?

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My father-in-law likes to say that he had 8 kids just so he wouldn’t have to save for retirement. “They’re going to support me!” It always gets a big laugh.

I can’t laugh at the joke…because it isn’t one.

My husband’s parents are awesome. They are incredibly sweet and generous with time and attention. I love them. They are also very open about the fact that they have nothing saved. There is no retirement plan – other than the kids.

My husband and his brother met with their parents to talk about retirement and the expectation the kids would fund it. The conversation didn’t go well.

Similarly, my parents have nothing saved. No pensions. No investments. Their house has a large mortgage. They have balances on credit cards and a hefty car payment. My father is the sole income earner. His health is declining.

Both sets of parents have made a lifetime of bad financial decisions and I struggle with their future barreling in like a freight train. In 5 years or less, we will be forced to do something… or nothing.

My brother reached out to me several years ago and asked when I’d like to start supporting mom and dad. At the time I could barely pay my own bills. Support mom and dad?

When I finally started making better financial decisions, my brother reached out again. “I’m not sure how much longer dad will be working. We really need to make a plan.”

We live on a single income. Our budget is TIGHT. Anything extra, we throw at the mortgage. Am I supposed to stop paying extra on my mortgage?

I’ve been reading articles on what to do in this situation and stumbled across this one. It was eerie how close it was to my circumstances and it offered some great tips but it focused on the parent/child relationship. What about the relationship between the siblings? I worry about the fractures that will inevitably happen when I don’t give as much as they expect. Or, what happens when I say I can’t pay for mom and dad because I’m saving for a trip with my kids? Any apparent excess would be scrutinized. I can imagine the comments, “Beks can afford dinner at a restaurant but can’t pay for mom’s cell phone bill?!?”

Two questions for you:
1) Do you believe children are responsible for financially supporting aging parents?
2) I’d love to hear if some of you are in the same situation and how you’ve responded.


29 Comments

  • Reply Ann |

    This is a tough one. And it will be a BIG problem in the future, because without pensions, many many people will not have money for retirement.
    Hopefully, though, your parents and in-laws have earned Social Security benefits? So they will have some income.
    We are perfectly fine for retirement, but I have to remind myself that although we made good decisions, we also were very lucky in the sacrifices our parents made so we could get a good education and find relatively good jobs. Still, we don’t have the retirement funds that others do, because we did have 4 kids and spent tons of money on expenses for them — the medical bills ! The orthodontia ! The college costs!
    So please look at these older people with love and affection as you sort this out. Good luck. Wish I had some good options for you.

    • Reply Beks |

      Ann – I love the perspective, “look at these older people with love and affection as you sort this out”.

  • Reply Reece |

    This is so tough! Your question: Do you believe children are responsible for financially supporting aging parents? My answer is: No. You are not responsible for financial decisions and plans that you did not make. My advice to you it would be this: Sit down and have a hard conversation with your husband about the financial expectations from both sides of the family, what your financial priorities are, and what your decision surrounding this will be. Want to help them with a small monthly amount? Fine. Cannot help at all because you have small children with many unforeseen expenses and you have a priority of paying off your mortgage early and fully funding your retirement? Fine. Personal Finance is personal, after all. Once you’ve made your decision you need to have a Hard Conversation with each side of the family, including siblings, (although maybe not at the same time) and set the boundaries of what their expectations are vs. what you can afford. And it will be hard and awkward and you might feel guilty, but you just have to get through it. It might look like, “Mom and Dad, we love you so much, we want to help you, and our budget for that is $100.00 a month”. Or, “Mom and Dad, we love you so much, we want to help you, but we can’t make it work with our budget. We’ll help you set up a budget, assist you with selling your home and moving to a place you can afford on your SS Income, and help you seek out programs to pay for your prescriptions if the cost is too high.” The main thing is to be transparent about what you can and cannot do, set that boundary, and stick to it. And the sooner you have this conversation the sooner the parents can make/adjust their expectations and plans.
    You mention both sets of parents have a lifetime of bad financial decisions. Do you think this will change because they have checks coming from the kids? You also mention any excess purchases you make will be scrutinized….girl, this is YOUR money! I’d be more worried about the bitterness and resentment that will inevitably happen when you have parents coming to you with their hands out and then watch them continue their pattern of poor financial choices. Going down that path will perpetuate the cycle to your OWN kids. You have the chance now to stop the cycle of dysfunction. If you listen to podcasts, Dave Ramsey, Farnoosh Torabi and Suze Orman all have multiple episodes covering this topic. Good luck, keep us updated!

  • Reply Joe |

    Beks, I have no easy answers for this difficult question. But I did want to thank you for the quality, insightful post that has merged your personal circumstance with a bigger picture question so organically.
    In my situation, it was the larger extended family that has been the question over the years. My aunt was so generous to me as a child, only as an adult did I realize that this largesse came on the back of an extremely shaky financial foundation. It was gut wrenching in my early 20s to be asked for larger and larger sums of money (that I had, but not “too spare”), but in the end I realized a clean break was necessary.

    Fast forward a couple decades when my personal financial situation is much more stable. I still wrestle with what I should do, if anything, at the current time.

  • Reply Meghan1227 |

    Hi Beks,

    I am lucky in that my dad is a Financial Planner and has taken his own lessons to heart. Odds are, I will never have to provide my parents with anything I don’t want to. However, as my brother saw himself in your situation with his in-laws, he decided to be proactive and to be safe, we are doing the same with our folks.

    Every month my siblings and I (one chose not to participate) put $50 into an “Oh, shit”) fund. We don’t anticipate needing this money for a couple of decades, if at all, so by planning now we will have something to offer if they ever need it.

    We considered different amounts ($25 was discussed initially but the youngest sis said she could swing $50). We also agreed on what would happen if someone decided to stop contributing as well as what we would do with the money if we never had to touch it. My parents do not know about this fund and in an ideal world will never have to find out.

    If you don’t want to fully shut out the possibility of providing some support to your respective parents, working with your siblings to get something like this started now before they need it could help prevent shelling out larger sums in the future.

  • Reply Demaddog |

    This is a topic that hits home. I have two parents who were wretched with money their entire lives, living beyond their means for nonsense while their kids had holes in clothing and shoes. My mother who would often say that I was her retirement plan since I was a doctor. I quite bluntly sent her very straight on that years ago. My mother lives on social security and a teacher pension and spends hundreds of dollars in gifts, cash, and gift cards per grandchild for each birthday and Christmas as well as giving my siblings the same. I have refused to accept money from her for years and have warned my siblings many times about them accepting anything from her because she will likely need it much more later. I’m the remote past, when they would ask me for money, I offered to teach about budgets. Not once did they accept. They just wanted an easy fix that would let them keep spending.

    I would never give them money directly. At most I would have groceries delivered and help with researching what resources are available, but not before I saw every dime that came in and went out. My parents just can’t be trusted, and it isn’t my responsibility.

    • Reply Beks |

      I get you on the ‘wretched with money’ thing! It’s hard to watch the continued bad decisions! I’m more worried about their retirement than they are! Oh, but I like the grocery idea!

  • Reply jj |

    I love this post and these comments. One of my parents will be ok, one will decidedly not.

    The one who is not ok, gets more $$ from us but not enough to live off of. That parent still works, but did not make good financial choices as an adult or parent, hence the current situation. I think only some of us would help him out, and others would not. I don’t think it’s fair for parents to expect their kids to support them, but if I was super rich I would do it for my parents. I am not however, so I cannot.

  • Reply Megan |

    I think you have to start to have the conversation with your spouse. What do you two want feel best about, how do you want to revisit your plans if things change? Would you be willing to have a parent or set of parents live with you? Etc. I would not be at all interested in supporting someone who had no desire to change their own spending habits. And that is exactly what some of what you have shared sounds like. Their expectations baffle me honestly.

    • Reply Meghan1227 |

      Megan – I understand this entirely. My husband and I are both the oldest siblings so sat down early on in our marriage and had the serious conversation about if we would let our parents live with us.

      It became difficult for us because while it was easy to say ‘yes!’ to any of our parents coming to live with us, my husband has a brother who still lives at home. Not employed, not in school, in his 30’s now and I absolutely put my foot down that if his parents needed a place to live they were welcome but his brother was not. In any circumstances. With any exceptions. In all honestly, I think that if any of our parents needed to live with us for financial reasons it would be because his brother drained his parents and put them in that position.

  • Reply Cheryl |

    I agree with you. Who expects their kids to take care of them financially when they make bad decisions.

    • Reply Patti from California |

      With my own mom, we have unique circumstances. She was a tremendous partner in helping to raise our family giving up a number of income earning years. She lived with us a number of years, working part-time and when she no longer wanted to do that, we purchased a retirement home and she moved there.
      We made the home purchase in the area we want to retire in, and I chose it, as it needs to work for my husband and I in retirement. It also needs to work as our vacation home, as we spend all vacations there now. This transaction was negotiated for over a year to be sure we were all on the same page.
      Mom did put what she could afford down on the house and she contributes a little from her social security towards expenses, but all financial responsibilities for both homes are ours. Mom was determined to move, but couldn’t really afford it on her own. This works for us and we feel like she earned our help in meeting her dreams for old age. She lives modestly.
      With my mom-in-law, she has never been financially responsible and quit working as a nurse in her early 50s due to stress. She went on disability. She then pursued a second degree in journalism at the expense of the government. Never worked a job during the last 25 years. She has been to Europe multiple times.
      Since her “early retirement” she has used up much of her nest egg, and been a huge financial burden to another family member, including living in a home owned by that person without paying her share. That family member was well to do originally, but things have gone south for them.
      When that happened, We offered to buy her a little house that we could afford near her current home. Older, two bedroom, in good condition. That house was not good enough for her. So we have left her to her own devices. We send food, toilet paper, cat food, wal-mart gift cards and our good wishes. We leave it at that. Not going to struggle financially so she can live “high on the hog”.
      I wish you luck in negotiating your own family struggles.

  • Reply JP |

    I think we owe our parents to try to help them, even if they haven’t always made the best decisions. They raised and provided for us when we needed it. Thats what family does – helps if possible. I probably wouldn’t do it if it put us at risk.

  • Reply SG |

    whoa, I feel you. That is a hard one. If you don’t protect yourselves you will find your kids in your same position. I think you need to have the hard conversation now that you will NOT be providing their retirement income. I like the idea of the kids all putting a little something in an account over the years that you can give at a later point if they wish. But they are adults, they knew this was coming, and should not have any credit card debt or a large mortgage at this point. We have one set of parents who has a fabulous retirement budget and planned their whole lives to protect themselves and one set that is spending hand over fist, with ill health and borrowing against their home to travel. My husband and I are in agreement we will not be helping them, they are making their choices.

  • Reply first step |

    I have two perspectives for this situation. First, after retiring, my mother spent money she didn’t have up to about $150K of debt. I had the tough conversation with her because I’m an only child, and at the time, our kids were young, and we didn’t have the money to help out. Fortunately, she had a life insurance policy which paid some of the debt, but my dad will finally pay off the rest of the remaining debt this year, 11 years after she died. See if they can get affordable life policies to help the surviving spouse.

    2nd perspective is my in-laws did a decent job of saving money, but my FIL had Parkinson’s disease. As our children grew and I was able to increase my income, my husband and I were able to increase our emergency fund to have money available in case my FIL had to be moved to assisted living or a nursing home. My in-laws never asked for monetary help, but it was nice to know that we and my husband’s brother’s family could have covered some of the expenses.

    My advice is to lay out to both families what you are and aren’t willing to do and stick to your plan. You can always re-evaluate if you’re able to help more later either financially or in other ways as your children grow and you have to provide less for them. Have the conversation about what everyone can provide now and revisit with your siblings every year because things will change for everyone over time.

  • Reply klm |

    This is such a hard decision! And it is so complex–like did your parents help pay for your college? Are their bad financial decisions bad luck or dumb choices? I think it’s worth trying to have a sit down with your parents about any retirement plans–have they paid into Social Security? What is their anticipated monthly benefit. Are they retiring at full retirement age? Do they really mean to not work at all in retirement, or would they work part time? Do they plan to stay in their house? Try to get some hard numbers so that you can see what the obvious shortfall will be. I also like the idea of each child putting in what they reasonably can–maybe it’s $0 and maybe it’s more–on a regular schedule. And you don’t actually have to give it to them. It could be that you pay their medication co-pays or phone bill or something tangible that you feel comfortable with (knowing where the $ is going). And if the $$ is not something you can support, you may be able to provide support in-kind. My uncles handled and supplemented my grandmother’s expenses in retirement, but my mom did the doctor’s appointments, errands, etc.

    • Reply Beks |

      Wow. Lots of questions to think through!

      My parents stopped paying for things when I got a job at 14. I bought my own clothes and I put myself through college. They had a lot of financial problems even then and didn’t have money to spare.

      My mother didn’t work so only my father has SS and he’s mid-70’s. His plan is to work until he dies but health concerns may stop that soon.

      I agree. It’s a good idea to break things down with my siblings to look at expenses and errands.

    • Reply Drmaddog |

      Excellent point. She should be able to get spousal social security based on her husbands income if they have been married at least 10 years I believe.

  • Reply Concerned |

    I realize this information is more for your parents than you but here I go! Your Dad needs to file for social security now if he has not. There is absolutely no extra benefits to delay it past the age of 70. Your Mom needs to file spousal support (depending on her age).

    If it were me I would gather the siblings together (if possible) and have a intervention for their finances. Strongly suggest they get rid of the house with the BIG mortgage. Find a way to downsize monthly expenses.. See if they can afford to buy a home outright with possibly the equity from the home they sold. Assist them in getting their financial house in order.

    Tell them you love them and only want the best for them for the rest of their lives! The way for them to live their best lives is to prioritize getting their financial house in order so all (you and your siblings) will know their financial future is taken care of as best as it can be!

  • Reply Concerned |

    If It were me I would gather the siblings together (if possible)and have a intervention for their finances. Strongly suggest they get rid of the house with the BIG mortgage. Find a way to downsize monthly expenses. See if they could afford to buy a house outright with the equity from the home they sold. Assist them in getting their financial house in order.

    Your Dad needs to file for social security NOW even if he is working and intends to continue working. There is no benefit to delaying collecting social security after age 70. Your Mom needs to file for spousal social security (depending on her age).

    Tell them you love them and only want the best for them for the rest of their lives! The way for them to live their best lives is to prioritize getting their financial house in order so all of you will know their financial future is taken care of as best as it can be!

So, what do you think ?