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Family Finances: Supporting Mom and Dad Nearly Ruined Me

My parents’ money problems became mine after they lost everything

spinner image illustration of a man giving cash to his elderly parents
Illustrations by Adam Simpson

Amid constant media coverage of financial support that Americans are providing their adult children, it’s easy to overlook that millions of middle-aged Americans are giving money to their parents. A new AARP Research survey of adults ages 40 to 64 shows how widespread— and stressful—that assistance can be.

My parents had always been meticulous savers. On two modest salaries, they managed to buy a house, put their three girls through college and sock away a decent-sized retirement fund.

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But after they retired, they did something completely uncharacteristic, if well-meaning: They invested almost all their savings in my youngest sister's new business, a children's day care center. By the time it closed its doors for good a year later, about three years ago, my parents had lost everything.

At first my father was able to pay their mortgage with his pension from the retail store chain where he had worked as a manager for 30 years (my mom had been in human resources). Both in their 70s, they received Social Security as well, yet despite living frugally, their debts began to pile up, and the bank threatened to foreclose on the house they had lived in for decades.

My youngest sister was saddled with heavy debt herself, from the business. My middle sister is a school nurse (enough said) with three kids and a husband who is perpetually unemployed. That left me. My husband is a film editor, and I'm a writer. We aren't exactly making buckets of cash, but we had always been able to eke out a living and support our daughter.

I was the lone person in the family with decent credit, so when my parents were forced to sell their home, I borrowed $50,000 for a down payment and bought them a smaller house. My husband said it was the right thing to do. Signing the loan agreement, though, made me nauseous.

When I bought the house, my father said he would pay the mortgage from his pension. Of course, I still had to pay back the down payment. Dad positioned their new house as an investment that would be repaid to me when they were gone.

It turned out, however, that my parents were still so broke that they, in fact, couldn't pay the mortgage. So for the first year, I duly wrote the checks. I'll just work harder, I thought. It's only money. I can make more. I started cranking out articles seven days a week. I had my own mortgage to pay, along with child care and hefty health insurance premiums (as freelancers, my husband and I are on our own).

Then, one afternoon, my father phoned. Their car died, he told me, as a knot formed in my stomach. There was virtually no public transportation where they lived, nor any ride-hailing services. My husband and I, after some debate, decided to give them our car, which we'd paid for in cash, and lease another one. What could I do? They had to get around.

Going broke

When I recall that period, I always think of the line in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises when a character is asked how he went broke: “Two ways,” he said. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That's what happened to us. Now that we had car payments to make as well, I started paying other bills with credit cards. I began to wake up every night at 3 a.m., ruminating about my finances for hours. My hair fell out in chunks. But I kept my worry from my parents because I was afraid it would affect their health, which, particularly for my dad, was starting to decline.

Although I've always been close with my family, a current of resentment began to course underneath almost all my interactions with them. I felt I was shouldering the burden for financial problems created by my parents and a sibling — a mess no one else was stepping up to solve. At family gatherings, hot anger would suddenly boil up in me. I'd notice, with narrowed eyes, that my youngest sister's kids always managed to have the latest electronics. When my middle sister was telling me about her beach vacation, I'd think, Huh, not making too many sacrifices, are you? Must be nice!

Then another day my father called. “I've got some unpleasant news,” he told me as I stood motionless, holding the phone. Their HVAC unit had stopped working, he said, and needed to be replaced, for $7,000. He asked if I could foot the bill (adding that it would “definitely add value when you sell the house"). I said that I'd try to scrape together the money.

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Then I hung up the phone and cried.

I felt so trapped. Money is still such a taboo subject in our culture, and financial problems can be deeply isolating. I needed to talk to someone. A friend of mine had seen a financial therapist — someone who counsels people on the emotions behind money — and I made an appointment.

The hard numbers of parental support

A new AARP research study shows how many Americans give Mom and Dad financial aid. Amid constant media coverage of financial support that Americans are providing their adult children, it’s easy to overlook that millions of middle-aged Americans are giving money to their parents. A new AARP Research survey of adults ages 40 to 64 shows how widespread— and stressful—that assistance can be.

In survey, “Parents” are parents, stepparents and parents-in-law. Phone survey of 1,508 adults was conducted fall 2019.

Many adults give money to their parents

Adults with living parents who have given them money in the past 12 months:

spinner image graphic showing that 32 percent of people  have given money to their parents in the past year
spinner image graphic chart that shows percentages of money amounts given to parents
spinner image graphic showing how parents used funds given to them by children on basic necessities

It was a relief to pour out my story to another human being. People think money is a rational, concrete topic, she said, when, actually, it's a highly emotional subject that's hardwired into our sense of survival. Money is primal; it's about food and shelter, health and safety. It's not “only money,” she offered bluntly. It never is.

When I told the financial therapist about purchasing my parents’ house — and how my father assured me it would eventually yield a return on my investment — she shook her head. “You never know what's going to happen and what type of care they might need down the line,” she said. “Don't count on ever seeing a penny from the sale of that house and you'll be happier. Consider that money gone.”

That advice, while difficult to hear, turned out to be enormously freeing — and the moment that changed everything for me. Reframing it as a gift helped to tamp down my anxieties, expectations and resentment around repayment. If, one day, I am actually remunerated, it will be a happy surprise.

As my therapist helped me look more realistically at other money matters and find ways I could assume control over my life, I felt physically lighter. We started by taking a hard look at my own behavior. As the classic dutiful, responsible eldest, I had to admit that I liked the power of swooping in to take care of everything — but that same pride kept me from telling my sisters that I was struggling.

After our session, I invited both sisters over for an unburdening get-together. They confessed that they were plagued by guilt, especially my sister who had started the business. The therapist had suggested that we brainstorm ways to make our situation feel more equitable. After a few cups of coffee, we agreed to think of time as another form of currency.

We decided that my sisters, who live closer to my folks, would take over tasks that required time — yard work, decluttering my parents’ house, planning and cooking for family holidays. And I privately vowed to curb my judgment on my siblings’ expenditures. (My middle sister, who works like a pack mule, was absolutely entitled to a beach vacation.)

Then I steeled myself for a sit-down with my parents. I was still worried that my confession would send them straight to the cardiologist, but as the therapist pointed out, my health was failing, too — and I was the family's foundation. I took a deep breath and told them that I simply couldn't afford the HVAC but would try to help them find a way to pay for it. So my father appealed to an organization founded by his company that helps out its own retirees with financial hardships. (I sure wish he had told me about this resource earlier.) Though I know it hurt his pride to ask, it worked.

And family relationships inflame those emotions, with shifting alliances, long-standing issues and competing values about what money “should” be for.

Getting candid

Amounts can be substantial

Money given in the past 12 months

It's usually on a regular basis...

… And very often it's for basic necessities

How parents used funds (could be more than one answer)

Lessons for You

Avoid the mistakes I made if you're going through this with your parents

Talk it out early. When my parents first asked for money, an hour of difficult conversation could have saved me months of simmering resentment.

Don't give money behind your partner's back. When I did this once, it created a huge rift in my marriage. Secrecy damages trust.

Set CLEAR limits. Specify how much and how often you'll give. Saying upfront that I had no financial leeway would have headed off many requests.

Save for your own retirement. My monthly contribution of $100 was enough to make me feel I was caring for myself, too.

Seek parents’ help on other issues. Being my parents’ landlord: Awkward! But asking their advice on unrelated matters communicated my respect.

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Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so after my therapist told me to find support outside the family, I also came clean with my friends, with whom I had almost never discussed finances. One morning I received a group text for a brunch meetup. I was reflexively typing an excuse — “Sorry, too busy, maybe next time!” — when I thought, Enough.

"Love to, but just can't afford it right now,” I wrote.

The first reply was from my friend Sarah, a teacher: “To be honest, I can't either.” Another friend said the same. Why, then, were we piling on debt by going to a restaurant? It was lunacy.

I proposed we meet in a park instead. During our get-together (we bought coffee to make it a little more festive) we spoke, for the first time, about our money problems. It turned out that half of them were quietly supporting their parents also. It was comforting to commiserate and to share advice.

Because money is indeed about survival, it can make you coolly appraise the people who have lovingly raised you. I try to fight those toxic feelings and put myself in my parents’ shoes to make them human again. What must it be like to lose everything when you've done the right thing your entire life? I'm sure it pains my dad, the lifelong careful saver, to take my money.

Lately I've made some changes, such as setting clear boundaries with my folks about what I can give. I can't share many of my frustrations with them, but I can confide in my sisters and friends. I remind myself that my parents took care of me financially for two decades. I didn't realize until I became a parent how often you wearily open your wallet for your child.

And I try to practice self-care and to stay physically and emotionally healthy. Thanks to an advance payment for a big work project, my husband and I have paid off the loan for the down payment on my parents’ house. But our finances remain precarious. If I'm feeling panicky about cash flow, I perform a nutty little ritual where I hold my own hand — a reminder that I need to care for myself, too.

My financial therapist was right: It's not “only money.” Each check I give my parents is more than a simple sum. What I'm really giving them, I tell myself, is security, dignity and peace.

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