Reader Mail: My Father’s Finances

Dear Mike,

My father turns 70 this year. He’s lived a fantastic, globe-trotting life as a journalist, but his freelancing gigs dried up about a decade ago and now he’s living off Social Security and some meager savings with old medical bills to pay. He’s very private about finances, so I’m not exactly sure what his situation is, but I am pretty sure he is right on the line of being able to support himself. He lives alone, and is friendly, but somewhat distant from our extended family. (I am his only child.)

I’m 24, and I just got my first real job, making enough ($33K) to pay the rent, put a little in savings, make student loan payments, and still have a tiny bit left over. I would like to divert 10 percent of my paycheck to his bank account, which would pay for a month’s gas or groceries, but I don’t know if he would accept that. Do you have any advice for how to approach that conversation? Is there another way that I can ensure, from seven hundred miles away, that my dad doesn’t have to eat cat food? And finally, what would be a rad (but useful) 70th birthday present for a very non-traditional, non-suburban man? — H.S.

“I am worried about mom and dad.”

With those seven words, I started a conversation with my brother about what we would need to do to ensure that my parents would have enough money to live a normal life when they reached the retirement age in a few years. I had been feeling troubled about my parents’ finances after my mother disclosed to me about the amount of money they had saved in their 401(k) plans, which was not very much. My father was retiring in just a few years, and my mother wasn’t too far behind. Would they have enough to pay the bills? Would they be forced to sell their house?

We started this website because people have a tendency to be really guarded about money, and for no good reason other than they feel the need to keep their money matters private. Talking about money can be difficult, and getting people to open up about it is hard at first, but the more I’ve done it, the easier it’s been. I can’t go anywhere these days without someone starting a conversation about money with me.

It was hard to talk about money with my parents at first, too. And when they did start telling me about their finances, they started out slow, and I didn’t get a full picture of their finances until I kept at it over the course of a year. By then, I had not only learned the exact amount of money they had in their retirement accounts, I had their credit card balances, what was left on their mortgage, and what they had to pay to keep the lights on. With this knowledge on hand, I had a better understanding of what I needed to do to plan for their futures.

Here’s what you should do to start a conversation with your dad about his finances: Don’t start out by asking him if he’s having money problems. That may cause him to clam up and say the thing parents like to tell their children which is, “I’m doing okay, just make sure to take care of yourself.” Most parents don’t want to be a burden to their children—they want their children cared for.

So let your dad continue to be your dad. Tell him you’ve been thinking about your finances, and that you wanted to have some sort of emergency plan in place for yourself in case you ever lost your income. Ask him what sort of emergency plans he has in place for himself. Hopefully, he won’t lie to you, but you may instantly get the sense that he’s doing fine on his own, or you may be troubled, like I was, that he won’t be able to sustain himself for an extended period of time.

Ask your father what you’re supposed to do if something ever happened to him. You are his only child, so it makes sense for you to be worried about this sort of thing. Ask him if there is any paperwork you’ll need access to (life insurance policies, a will, etc.) The more you get the ball rolling on this money discussion, the easier it will be for him to open up to you about his finances. If he’s anything like my parents, you won’t learn everything at once, but at least you’ll start learning something.

I hope it turns out that his financial situation isn’t as dire as you think it might be. I hope you won’t have to divert any money you’re earning now to pay for your father, though as someone who sends home money to his parents, I understand why you would want to do that. Your father is lucky to have a child who cares so much about him.

As for a birthday gift for a father turning 70—write him 70 notes telling him 70 different ways you love him. Put together 70 of the stories you love most that your father has written into a book. He lives 700 miles away. Buy a plane ticket and tell him you love him in person. That will probably be the best gift of all.


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