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Dear Pay Dirt,
My father is severely mentally ill and suffers from Parkinson’s disease and moderate cognitive impairment. He is currently living in an assisted living facility across the country from my sister and me. He used to be very wealthy and has not worked for almost all of my life. My parents divorced when we were kids, and my dad was a verbally abusive parent, although he was loving too. Later on, he became violent toward his girlfriend of 20 years, and she eventually left him. Now he has run out of money and can no longer afford the assisted living facility. He is not sick enough to qualify for a Medicaid bed in a nursing home, but he is too sick to live independently. We do keep in touch with him and try to help him when he needs assistance with small matters.
He wasn’t a horrible enough dad for my sister and I to feel comfortable letting him live on the streets, but we cannot allow him to move in with us either—he is too toxic, and his propensity toward physical abuse is abhorrent, not to mention his demanding and entitled ways. We are not wealthy but comfortable, and we do not feel like it is our responsibility (nor our partners) to pay for our dad. We also don’t feel like we should have to sacrifice our children’s college funds or our own retirement savings, especially since he at one time had millions of dollars that he has since squandered, despite our best efforts to intervene.
We have no idea what the best course of action is here. He refuses to give us control of the less than $100,000 he has left and expects us to put him up in one of our homes. We have visited and contacted assisted living facilities and nursing homes, but none are affordable. What do we do?
—Conflicted Deadbeat Kids
Dear Conflicted Deadbeat Kids,
You’re in a tough position, and one that many Americans increasingly experience as the population ages and there are few options for people like your father who lack an adequate safety net. And given his behavior, it’s not unreasonable to refuse to let him move in with you.
You may want to explore programs that are not quite an assisted living center but still provide some of the same services. There are federal and state grant programs for senior housing that your father may qualify for since he has little in savings and no income, and there are some home services that are covered by Medicare and Medicaid. There are also community organizations that do some of these things, and can help take some of the burden off of you and your sister. The department of aging in your father’s state is a good place to start that search.
You should make it clear to your father that moving in with you is simply not an option, but that you’re willing to help him figure out what options he has instead. That will likely entail cobbling together several different programs to make sure that he has shelter and appropriate care. If he chooses to refuse your help on the basis that you’re not letting him live with you, I think you’ve done as much as you can. He will probably qualify for public assistance sooner rather than later if his money is running out and he has no other source of income. It may be that the only way he comes to terms with that reality is to get to the point where he has no choice.
Dear Pay Dirt,
When I was in my mid-20s, I borrowed around $30,000 from my parents. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles and working as a bartender and barista while, ahem, working on a screenplay. They offered to loan me money for grad school at a university much nearer to my hometown. I’d broken up with my boyfriend the day before they made the offer, so I leapt at the chance to walk away from that life.
I have never felt great about any of this. They deeply disapproved of my choice to move far from home, and the timing of the offer seemed a bit manipulative. I should say that they’re generally loving parents who respect my autonomy, but they do have a really outsized sense of the dangers faced by a Woman Alone in the Big City.
For the past decade, I’ve been paying them back, with interest, at a rate of $100 a month. They recently called me to say that they’ve decided to cancel my remaining debt to them. They cited their own advancing age—they’re in the late 70s—and the desire to simplify their final affairs. But I’m just not sure where my ethical responsibility lies here: Should I pay them off irrespective of their wishes? I assume that, despite being on a fixed income in their retirement, their lifetime of aggressive saving and thrift has left them well-fixed. Should I plan to, when they pass, share an appropriate fraction of my share of their estate with my brothers to even things out? Or should I say “Great, I never really wanted that money anyway?” and go out and buy a $100 steak to celebrate?
—(Formerly?) Indebted Daughter
Dear Indebted Daughter,
I think your ethical responsibility is to make good on whatever terms your lender (in this case, your parents) sets. And your parents probably don’t want you to still be indebted to them when they die. You’ve been responsible about paying them back so far, and that’s probably what was actually important to them—more so than the money. So if they want to change the terms of the agreement, you should let them.
You also need to stop beating yourself up for taking the risk to try something creative in your 20s. That’s precisely when people do that! And even though it didn’t work out, if you hadn’t given it a shot, you’d probably be wondering right now if you’d made a mistake by never attempting it. That kind of regret is often more powerful than any misgivings you have about a dead-end career path. It’s not a moral failing to make a decision that doesn’t ultimately work out the way you hoped, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it.
Regarding your brothers: You should perhaps talk to them about the debt, and if you’re worried that they’ll be resentful if you get an equal share of the estate, and then you can make a decision based on that information. But chances are, they don’t care, so I say go get yourself a nice juicy steak and celebrate the fact that you responsibly paid off your loan for the last decade. You should be proud of that. Your parents probably are.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My wife and I are recently married. On paper we make about the same; however, I have three children (two adults now) and an ex-wife, and a large chunk of my net income goes to them for another six years.
My wife and I bought a new house that I considered at the top of my affordability range. It needs updates, so I’ve been racking up bills and now believe I have reached my limit on “extra” home improvement expenses for a while. But she is still pushing for updates much faster than I can afford them. I have tried to address it, but it ends in her stating that she does not want to argue about money, when really I am just trying to set boundaries. I cannot afford to spend at the pace I am, when she can. Any help here to get her to understand my financial limitations given my obligations?
—Balancing Unequal Net Income
Your wife is in denial about the fact that you’re stretching your spending beyond your means, and the only way to snap her out of it is to articulate to her exactly what the options are. And talking about money is not de facto “arguing” about money. Tell her you need to be able to discuss your finances with her so that you can make joint decisions that are good for both of you. These are important conversations to have in any marriage.
If you think she will push back on this idea, you should suggest talking to a financial planner about long-term spending and investing. (After all, your upgrades are ostensibly investment in the property.) Sometimes it’s easier to talk about money objectively when a third party is mediating and can remove some of the emotional tension around the conversation. This will force your wife to examine your financial situation in detail and should help her better understand why you can’t spend the same way she does.
You should also emphasize to her that your hesitancy to spend is not a function of lack of enthusiasm for the project. It just needs to happen on a timeline that you can afford, and all of the extra spending is causing you unnecessary anxiety. She cannot simply pretend it isn’t happening and dismiss your concerns. The whole point of improving the house is to make a home you both feel comfortable and happy in, and that won’t happen as long as you’re stressed out about the rate at which you’re spending.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am a successful professional after many years of hard work. I worked full time during college and graduated with only $3,000 in student loans that I paid off quickly. I then went to graduate school, and I have paid that off in full. I paid off my mortgage two years ago. I now have no debt and a lot of disposable income. I did this all with no help from anyone, including my parents. As soon as I started earning my own money as a teen, I was expected to pay for my own toiletries, clothes, etc, which made it challenging it to save (and which led to a shoplifting problem). My parents both died in debt after making poor financial decisions.
I am terrified of being poor. This has caused me to really have a tough time helping others. I would love to donate to favorite charities and nonprofit groups. I would love to help out coworkers more if they need help in a crisis. I do give some money here and there, but I am always afraid. I have an unreasonable fear that if I give money away, I will suddenly become a pauper, and I will have needed that money to survive. I also sometimes think that no one ever helped me financially, so why should I help anyone else? But I dislike myself for feeling that way. How can I be more generous without the anxiety?
Dear Regrettably Uncharitable,
Growing up with financial stress is a kind of trauma, and a lot of people underestimate how it affects overall health and well-being long after you’ve escaped poverty. That you were able to get financially stable by yourself is remarkable, but not everyone can do that, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people have to ask for help. It’s also unlikely that you had no help, which doesn’t always come in the form of a direct cash transfer. There are people in your life who probably opened doors for you, encouraged you, contributed to where you are now, so it’s worth thinking about what it really means when you say you did it all yourself.
You should also probably see a therapist to talk about your anxiety around money. Nearly everyone has some fear of financial ruin, but yours is disrupting your life in a way that makes it difficult for you to think rationally about it and seems to be affecting your self-esteem as well. You think of yourself as an ungenerous person, and that may not be the case.
Until you can learn to manage those fears, think about other ways you can help people who are struggling. Charities don’t just need money; they usually need volunteers, too. Your time is valuable, and you may have less anxiety to be generous that way because it’s not a cash contribution. You can also help people the way you were helped, even if you don’t think about it that way. If you’re a successful professional, you can mentor people who are in the same situation you were at one point. You can find other ways to be charitable when you see people struggling.
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