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Don't try to parent your parents. That way lies madness.

Ask the Bitches: My Dad Sucks with Money. How Do I Make Him Change?

We have a letter from a reader today! And it’s a keeper.

Bitches, what can I do to help my parents be smarter with their money?

My dad is in his fifties, and he has really bad money habits. He makes a decent amount, but he clearly lives beyond his means. He drives a luxury car, and goes on 2-3 vacations every year. There’s a storage unit full of toys (ATVs, a home gym, etc.) he owns but barely uses. He orders in most meals, even though he has an amazing kitchen I would kill for. Seeing how wasteful he is makes me want to scream.

As far as I know, he has almost nothing saved away for retirement. He doesn’t seem to have an emergency fund. I don’t know how much debt he’s in, but I’ve seen his credit card come back declined more than once.

I’m so worried that he’ll reach retirement age with absolutely nothing. My own finances are probably in better shape, even though I’m younger and work at a tiny nonprofit! I’ve tried to educate him about personal finance several times in the past. He gets defensive and brushes me off. I offered to help him make a budget more than once, but he declines. Last time we argued about it, he said his plan is to never retire! What can I say to make him change?

When parents suck with money

This letter is perfectly timed, as our really, really, really ridiculously good-looking Patreon donors have asked us to write on the subject of parents who are bad with money.

I think a lot of young people can relate to this letter writer’s problem. On the whole, Millennials are better at setting financial goals and saving/investing toward them than their Baby Boomer parents. (Though they have some things in common. Boomers say they don’t need to invest in their retirement because they’ll never stop working; Millennials say they don’t need to because climate change will kill us all. Comme ci, comme ça.)

When I was ten years old, my mother yelled at me when my kitten peed on our family room sofa. “It’s a brand new, six thousand dollar couch!” she cried in frustration.

As I did my best to scrub the ammonia stink away, I remember internally questioning why anyone would buy a six thousand dollar couch—especially someone with three kids, a dog, and a kitten. I didn’t have a strong concept of the value of a dollar yet… but I knew that was a lotof boxes of Swiss Cake Rolls.

Two decades later, I’ve come to what I think is a more mature, nuanced understanding of how to approach your parent’s finances. At our patrons’ behest, I want to share it with you all today. It’s only four words long!

Letter writer, I think you need to mind your own business.

Stay in your lane.

Don’t try to parent your parents

Lemme ‘splain.

Most lifelong bonds are equal, and have some level of fluidity. Spouses, romantic partners, siblings, friends—one of the reasons these bonds endure is because they can change and evolve over time. The people who pounded Long Island Iced Teas together can become, in twenty years, the people who stress out over fertility treatments together.

But the parent-child bond is different. It is in the nature of parents and children to be unequal. One is responsible, and one is vulnerable; one is powerful, and the other is powerless. It is the responsibility of the parent to steward the child safely to adulthood. Once they’ve fulfilled that responsibility, the relationship will probably change. That change may be sad, uncomfortable, irritating, or scary to one or both parties.

But even when you learn to comfortably interact as two adults, the fundamental nature of the parent-child relationship still exerts itself. It’s enough of a struggle to begin to act like social equals. Real friction will arise if you try to invert the relationship by treating your parent like they’re the children.

Don’t try to parent your parents. That way lies madness.

In the 1991 Father of the Bride, there’s a good gag where Steve Martin’s character stares at his twenty-something daughter, who’s explaining that she’s engaged, but can only see her as a six-year-old.

Make no mistake: when you attempt to “educate” your parent on personal finance, they’re almost certainly having their own Steve Martin moment. You have to imagine how weird it is when the baby whose shitty butthole you wiped informs you that you’re bad at being an adult.

Because yes, the way that someone handles money has always been a key benchmark of their overall maturity and trustworthiness.

Choices are values

When a vegan person makes a polite, factually accurate statement about eating meat, why do omnivores (or god help me, self-described “carnivores”) immediately get super defensive and start gushing about the unfathomable deliciousness of bacon?

When Mr. Money Mustache made a fair observation that pet ownership is expensive and completely optional, guess how many pet owners ran to the comments to defend and extol the virtues of their precious pooches?

Choices are a reflection of our values. What we choose to eat, where we choose to live, how we choose to dress, who we choose to spend our lives with, what we choose to purchase—they’re actions that demonstrate what we value and who we are in a very intimate way. Even the mildest, most neutral comment on that choice can feel a lot like an attack. Especially if it’s poking at a sore spot of which one is already well aware.

I know you do, boo.

You, letter writer, value a secure retirement above the worldly pleasures of a luxury vehicle. Obviously we agree with you. But that is still a value judgment. Your dad could buckle down and live on value pack ramen, trying to play catch up with his investments… but that’s clearly not the life he wants. And that’s a good enough reason to leave him alone.

As an opinionated-ass person, one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that I can’t control other people. Even if the reason I want to control them is because I love them and I want to protect them from the consequences of their choices. It’s easy to forget what makes me happy doesn’t make everyone else happy. To assume otherwise is disrespectful on a fundamental human level.

It’s patronizing to shield a person from the consequences of their own decisions. It isn’t something we do to adults—it’s something we do to children. However well you think you know your dad, you don’t know him well enough to second-guess the life he wants to live. Unless his behavior is destructive to those around him, you don’t get a say. And even then, the only thing you can control is yourself.

Lacking information versus lacking good judgment

Letter writer, you asked us what you can do to make your father change. Good news—you shouldn’t and you can’t! So you can stop stressing yourself out by trying!

Your dad has had fifty some-odd years on the planet. That’s substantially more time than you. And in that time, he has decided he likes toys and doesn’t really mind the consequences of getting them. You aren’t going to change him.

I think there’s a big difference here between someone who lacks information and someone who lacks judgment.

  • Let’s say your parent just moved to the United States from, say, Budapest. Is it cool to explain to them how paychecks and healthcare and retirement funds work here? Absolutely. Your parent wouldn’t have that information otherwise.
  • Or say you have a very technologically challenged parent, who still drives in to the bank to deposit checks. Is it cool to show them how online banking works? Again, absolutely.
  • If your parent has dementia or some other cognitive issue, that’s the ninth inning in the same ballgame. If they no longer have the capacity to manage their own finances, absolutely, it’d be really swell of you to respectfully step in and help.
  • If your dad comes to you and asks for the educational resources you’ve already enthusiastically telegraphed your willingness to impart, that will be your time to shine!

But our letter writer’s dad isn’t lacking information.

  • I promise he already knows he is mortal. If he’s in his fifties, he’s probably already dealt with his own parent’s declining health or death. So he may understand it better than you.
  • He’s definitely heard that it’s better to have lots of money saved than lots of money owed. I bet he can imagine how nice it would be if he didn’t face constant financial instability.
  • He likely understands that his current situation is not sustainable forever. His creditors are already probably hassling him over his debts. Watching his card decline in front of his kid probably ain’t an awesome, uplifting experience.
  • You’ve instigated “several” discussions about budgeting, retirement, and his finances in general. So he definitely knows that you are knowledgable on the subject and eager to discuss it with him.

He’s likely made a choice to ignore these realities, rather than confront them. And that is his choice to make, as an autonomous adult, though yes, he may regret it later.

I've made a huge mistake.

Letter writer, your heart is in the right place. But you aren’t giving your dad any earth-shattering news he doesn’t know. He lacks judgment. And it’s not in the nature of your relationship to pass judgment on his past judgment. (Ye GODS I’m witty!)

Think of all the financial resources available to a man that aren’t his offspring! He can talk to friends, contemporaries, coworkers, mentors, his spouse/partner, his HR department, self-help resources, a proper financial advisor… It should come as a relief to remind yourself that you aren’t the gatekeeper of all financial knowledge. For all you know, the reason he’s brushing you off is because he’s already having these discussions elsewhere.

Keep your eyes on your own paper

It sounds like our letter writer is on a good path. Maybe not making a ton of money, but managing it well. That’s awesome! Keep it up!

It could be that if you model financial responsibility, your dad will start to see that you know what you’re doing, and ask you for help or advice. That would be ideal! But you need to let him come to you.

Dropping a bucket of holy water on someone’s head does not a baptism make; he has to come to Jesus on his own. It takes a thousand pounds of pressure to change someone against their will. You’re more likely to break the relationship than get what you want. He isn’t asking you for help. So stop trying to give it.

That said, there are four things I want you to do.

  • Rule out mental health challenges. From what you’re describing, it doesn’t sound like this is a shopping addiction, or a sign of early cognitive decline. But it bares noting that physical and mental health issues can alter spending habits, and they need a very different strategy. Always rule that out first.
  • Passively model the thrifty behavior you want him to see. When the two of you plan to get dinner, don’t meet at a restaurant—grab some groceries and cook a meal together in his underutilized kitchen. If he offers to bring you along on his amazing thrice-yearly vacations, counter-offer a thriftier local alternative. Just don’t be weird and preachy about it. “WOW, this CHEAP thing is so GOOD, who could’ve guessed?!” Stop. You’re trying to convince an adult man to try driving a Honda Civic—not a baby to eat vegetable puree with elaborate rocket ship pantomime.
  • If your dad uses you as an excuse to spend, deprive him of the justification clearly and firmly. When he gets you expensive gifts, consider setting a spending limit or sending them back. If he says he’s buying ATVs “for the kids,” don’t let those jokes or comments pass without objection. And don’t go riding around on them saying “whee!” Nobody says “whee!” If you take advantage of all his neat stuff, you definitely aren’t in a position to criticize him.
  • Think about what you will do if your father ever asks you for money. And yikes, this is a tough one.

It’s hard being hardhearted

A few years ago, my mother called me to ask for a loan.

The call was a bit of a sucker punch. Mostly because she and I don’t have a good relationship. I felt caught between two powerful forces. One: revulsion at the notion of violating a social taboo, of being too hardhearted to help a struggling mother in her hour of need. The other: outrage that she called me knowing full well how hard it would be for me to refuse.

Letter writer, your dad may call you one day and ask you the same question. And I want you to be prepared for it.

Only you can know what’s right in your unique situation. Based on what you’ve told me, I personally would not lend your dad money. Someday his spending habits will have to change. You don’t want to be the tool he uses to delay that much-needed change. If you agree with me, you will need a lot of practice erecting and defending boundaries between your dad’s finances and your own. Remember: he’s a big boy.

I said above that no parent enjoys being treated like a child by their child. The reverse is also true: no child enjoys being treated like a parent by their parent. It’s a grim inversion that unmoors both parties.

Someday the situation may become more serious. Until that time, don’t borrow trouble. Focus on yourself and mind your own business. Consider it the greatest possible compliment that your dad tried, and succeeded, to raise you with better money sense.

“Don’t… leave me this way…”

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17 thoughts to “Ask the Bitches: My Dad Sucks with Money. How Do I Make Him Change?”

  1. There’s an ongoing battle in my family, too, that’s similar to this. My dad has investments that would be big No-Nos in the PF world. Higher fees, advisor drives to their house with cookies on holidays, the whole bit.

    We’ve talked, talked loudly, and kind of pounded our heads against the wall, but I’ve arrived at that same place. He doesn’t have to make my choices, nor I his. Do I think we could pay less in fees? Do I worry about him being taken advantage of? Yes and yes.

    But I have to remember how insulting that is. Not just because he actually probably has more money and business acumen than I do, but also because people are allowed to make their own choices and mistakes, regardless of age.

    Also? As a teacher, you’d think no one would understand this better than me but I clearly forgot: telling someone what you would do is not the same as educating them.

    1. Amen. It’s really hard for me. I’m opinionated and domineering. My first instinct is always to tell people how *I* would do everything, the implication being that they should do the exact same thing. But I know that’s a controlling, unwelcome, and repellant impulse. I swear it comes from a place of love! But it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time and energy learning to suppress. In many ways, this blog is the vent for all that pent-up bossiness.

  2. My suggestion is be prepared not just for him asking about a loan, but also about his assuming that he can move in with you/expect help from you once he’s unable to work any longer.

    And by “be prepared,” I mean, “Be prepared to say ‘no’.”

    Between now and that time (which I hope never happens), listen for hints. “Oh, man, the stock market sucks right now! Good thing I have kids to take care of me when I’m old, ha ha ha…” should get a swift response: “Oh, Dad, you crack me up! There’s no way in heck I’m going to let ANYBODY move in with me, unless it’s another kitten! … No, seriously, Dad, you need to come up with another plan. I absolutely will not let you move in. I’m also not set up to help you financially — student loans and the need to plan my own retirement, helloooooo!”

    1. This was exactly my thought – my parents are older than the reader’s dad and I’m living this first hand. My parents saved and have plenty of money so that I can spend time with them and help with their care [I’m handling ALL their finances and take care of absolutely everything in their lives at this point] but I am not stuck with the idea of having to physically care for them in my home or try to figure out how to pay for their care, I just spend their money on them.

      However what would the reader do if her father were 75 and homeless? Unable to work and unable to live on his social security or savings? Would she ignore him in the street? The only way to avoid that horrible situation, or the alternative of being his caretaker, is to talk about it NOW.

      Be clear that you have no intention of being his back up retirement plan and that it seems like he’s really not preparing. Offer to help review the situation if he wants it or show him a website or a book that would help. It’s a little offensive and he may balk, but at least you’ve SAID it and will be able to know you tried to avoid the worst when it comes – it will help you set boundaries going forward to open that can of worms too. I agree you can’t parents, but at some point many people DO wind up doing so [I’m now the parent – I drive them to the doctor, manage their health and finances, make decisions about everything] so it’s better to feel the situation out early on. If he doesn’t respond well that’s fine, you never have to bring it up again, but it sure will make it easier to say no later if you have that conversation now

  3. This is very timely for me. A close friend’s parents have started asking him for money. Large amounts of money, because they have fallen on hard times. It is very frustrating to me because I know how his parents live and I know their expenses could be lower. But I also know that they have no one else to turn to for the money and recent health issues have kept them both from being able to work. Wish there was a way to improve the situation.

    1. That really sucks. I’m so sorry that your friend is in that situation.

      It feels so petty to say “yes I’ll lend you the money to keep your house, but only if you cancel your fancy cable subscription and start eating more beans and rice.” When you KNOW that the other person’s expenses could be lower, as is the case with this LW’s dad, I err towards not lending the money. It forces them to make those much-needed lifestyle adjustments, which are much more powerful than a simple cash injection.

  4. I think there is a lot of useful information in this article but I feel like it does skirt around the biggest issue. The letter writer’s dad is only in his 50s so hopefully he will have many many years ahead of him but if he is really living beyond his means there is a chance all his debt could be dumped on his children and at that point you can’t just say no to it? And isn’t it unfair for the letter writer to have to be considering, as they are aging and trying to make sure they are properly saving, that they are going to have to find some to deal with that debt later?

    1. Ah, this is one of those points I failed to include because I took it for granted that everybody knows already. Thanks for giving me the chance to add this crucial point:

      Debts do not transfer to heirs. When Dad dies (which could be another 50 years from now for all we know), if his estate lacks funds to cover the debt payoffs, the debts are wiped away. It’s only a financial burden to the LW in the sense that they may not get an inheritance. But I don’t get the sense that the LW is hanging on that.

  5. I grew up in a multi-generational household — 3 generations under one roof. I raised my kids close to my mom and my grandparents, so they grew up around 4 generations. So responsibility to one’s parents also has a cultural angle, and it can vary. That said, the essence of “mind your own business” still holds in multi-generational households. You never want to take away the agency of the other person (parent, child, grandparent) to make their own choices, and that includes the consequences of those choices. But you do want to give people a heads-up if you’re not going to be a backstop and support them if they run out of money, and there might be that expectation. Luckily it never came to that in our household, but I did frequently talk to family members about money — sharing articles that broached sensitive topics, like elder care, rather than making it seem like I was broaching the topic.

    1. The cultural expectation around supporting one’s parent is a whole ‘nother layer of messiness. Especially when it’s cross-cultural… Like if, say, the kids are American but the parents are first-generation Chinese immigrants. It can become a real tug-of-war between traditional expectations and modern realities. It can often create fighting among siblings as well, if some give more aid to aging parents than others. A tremendously messy business. I’m glad it hasn’t been too bad for you and you were able to bring up sensitive topics with grace!

  6. I’m lucky enough that my mom is good with money. She writes about it for a living, in fact. We’ll both be at FinCon in fact (and I hope to chat with you there because I enjoyed our chat last year). So I’ve never had to consider this. But I agree that with parents, as with friends, you cannot control their behavior. Trying to will just strain or break an important relationship in your life. You can’t make other people change — even when it’s for their own good.

    I like your point about financial priorities. People value different things, and retirement may take a backseat to nice cars and meals out. Granted, when you get to the point of declined cards, you’re living in the extreme and it’s understandably worrisome (especially because he may not be able to work as long as he thinks he can). But in the end he’s an adult (even if financially he doesn’t necessarily act like one) and you can’t force your behavior on him. Unless he asks for money. Then you can set certain guidelines. But even that I wouldn’t suggest.

    1. Your mom is the coolest 🙂 I can’t wait to see you both again this year!! As usual, we will likely be holding court at the pool… Umbrella drinks in hand… We are Very Serious, Big-Time Bloggers!

  7. From the other end of the stick, I can completely understand LW’s wish to help their dad out because from my perspective (oh hindsight), they may really want to avoid being put in the position of having to be asked for money later. Their dad may not INTEND to but in the end, it’s very likely to be the landing zone they’re facing down in five, ten, or 15 years. I helped my dad to ages because I thought the alternative was homelessness. And when I found out that he was a manipulative liar, I had to make much harder decisions to protect myself and my family and we are now estranged because he came to only see me as a bank. This was a reality I couldn’t have dreamed of, 20 years ago. I don’t blame LW for not wanting to see that version of reality come to pass, for wanting to make sure their dad is ok and also to protect their future selves. And yet your advice is still so true – you can’t change them if they don’t want to be changed. It won’t happen and it’ll just poison the relationship earlier. Maybe he’ll get his shit together and maybe he won’t but probably the only thing you can do at this point is make sure you’re not enabling and making your future plans (not to support him) clear.

    1. What a gut punch. Over the years, I’ve had some opportunities to see how depraved and manipulative some people can be. (For which I am truly grateful! Seeing some of that in my childhood and adolescence made me a slightly jaded but way more prepared adult.) Sometimes it’s something that deserves compassion… Addiction, in particular, is a disease that will drive people to use their family members. Other times, it’s just that they don’t love and value you the same way you love and value them. Either way hurts like hell.

      If you want to try to help, a better alternative to loaning money can be to buy them needed things instead. Grocery store gift cards, paying rent or utilities directly, even opening your home to them. As you say, becoming a financial resource for your parents can go really, really wrong, and damage or destroy the relationship…

  8. I feel this post pretty hard.

    One of the big breakthroughs with my therapist was her telling me that my dad would simply never listen to me re: money advice. The dynamics of our relationship prevented it: wisdom was supposed to flow from him to me. Trying to tell him how to better manage his finances violated the nature of the father son relationship, so all I was going to get out of it was frustration.

    It’s still hard to keep myself from doing it, but I at least will catch myself at some point and realize: hey, you’re doing it again. The best thing to do now is stop.

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