Have you had the talk yet? No, not the one with your tween. The one with your aging parents—regarding their financial health for retirement?
Financial planning is not my specialty, yet my siblings and I are becoming experts in the field.
Growing up, my mom had an insatiable appetite for keeping up with the Joneses. Makes me wonder how things turned out for the good ole Jones Family?
As an impressionable teen, she would often comment about who was driving the latest luxury car or which family was off on another exotic vacation. My mother always seemed to want more, as if the home we lived in and the cars we drove were not enough. Where did my dad fit into all this? He just wanted my mom to be happy—therein lay only part of the problem.
When I was in grade school, we moved across the country and purchased a home in one of our new state’s most expensive neighborhoods. Think La Jolla, Boulder, or Palm Beach. My parents definitely got off to a good start, but of course, they bought their first home in the 1960s, not the 2000s.
Even so, as a child, I sensed there were times when my parents were stressed out financially.
They never discussed their financial issues with their kids. Still, I vividly remember catching my mom crying one day as she opened the bills.
I understood very young not to ask for anything extra, and I had better figure out how to earn my own money as soon as I could. These are definitely valuable lessons, but they were gained at the price of absorbing my parent’s financial stress as my own.
Twenty years ago, when my parents were in their 60s, I first broached the subject of their finances with my mom—my dad was off-limits. I had no idea how true this was, especially for her.
At the time, my mom said, “Jennifer, none of you kids will ever have to take care of us.” Even then, I knew that someday their problem would become our problem.
They bickered about the monthly bills but did not discuss or plan how they would continue to pay for their lifestyle into retirement. They both could easily live to one hundred, and what if one of them needs long-term care?
Now, this is the part that stings, no burns—they earned anywhere from $250,000 to $350,000 per year for the last 40 years. Suppose they had invested just a fraction of their earnings each year? They may have amassed more than one million dollars in savings, and that’s a conservative estimate. As it stands, my parents only have the equity in their home, less their mortgage, and not much in savings.
What about the appreciation built up in the house they bought in the 1960s, you ask? Well, they sold their first home and have continued to trade up over the years. All of their homes have been upgraded, remodeled, and borrowed against. If the 2008 housing crisis taught us anything, it’s that we should not invest all our savings in one economic basket—especially real estate.
As adults, my brothers and I each offered our parents access to our own financial planners over the years.
Each time my dad ignored the offer, and my mother would whisper, “Well, I would go, but your dad says he’s got it all taken care of it.”
Do you know that, mom? Are you sure? I would think to myself. Always wanting to be respectful, I never pushed.
Although my mother was a leader in her field, often out-earning my dad, she was still bound by traditional norms that reinforced it’s a man’s job to take care of the finances. Only recently, when my mother finally decided to retire in her late 70s, did she discover the true gravity of their situation.
My parents were about to start receiving $4,000 a month in social security, which would dwindle to $2,000 when one of them passed. Not surprisingly, they had accumulated far more in monthly expenses than their social security checks would cover.
We did not need a financial planner to tell us they were in trouble. Friends, the final analysis wasn’t pretty.
When my parents finally allowed me to see a financial planner on their behalf, it was determined that selling their home was the only option to ensure they would have enough money to fund their retirement. My parents were devastated.
Let me rephrase that. My mom was literally in shock—my dad continued in stoic silence.
With the sale of their home and a significant reduction in monthly expenses, the financial planner budgeted a modest monthly housing allowance for them. If invested conservatively—their remaining funds could last them another 15 to 20 years. Now, at 80 and 85 respectively, their remaining funds might even outlast them.
Unfortunately, they would not have enough money left over from their home’s sale to downsize to a smaller one in the area. All the apartments they could afford were not even close to the standard of living they were accustomed to.
My mom was heartbroken, and it was excruciating to witness. Again, right or wrong, I shouldered her pain as my own. So after much consideration, my siblings and I decided to buy our parents a small condo they would be proud to live in.
At first, they protested, but we assured them it would be a good investment for us—eventually, they gratefully accepted. They will be able to cover the rent, and we will sell the condo when they pass. Although my parents created their own mess, they also put five kids through college, and for the most part, provided us with a wonderful childhood.
Now it’s fun to see how excited they are to move into their little condo, nestled in the trees, looking out on a picturesque lake. They’ve traded their big, beautiful home for less stress and more peace of mind. They’re surrounded by new friends who are also choosing a simpler yet still active way of life. This, my friends, makes all our sacrifices worth it.
I encourage you to talk to your parents early and push harder for answers than I did.
The sooner you ask, the more time they will have to plan, save, invest, and hopefully enjoy a healthy, active, and carefree retirement. I wish you all the best as you venture into this new phase of life.
Questions to Ask: Do they plan to stay in their home? If yes, will they have enough income to fund their lifestyle through retirement? If they’re considering retirement homes, I recommend visiting them early and ask about all of the upfront and monthly costs required. Depending on your parent’s answers, you may also need to ask your parents if they will need assistance from you.