As an adult, you take it upon yourself to deal with your finances. Unfortunately, not all adults do the same thing. And perhaps it’s not a skill that you learned from your parents. In fact, many adults today struggle with the fact that they have financially irresponsible parents. Families are complicated. Money is complicated. Therefore, money can get really complicated in families. But it’s possible to find ways to work through those challenges.

Identify The Problem

The first thing that you need to do when it comes to dealing with financially irresponsible parents is to identify the problem. Why does their financial situation bother you? What are the deeper underlying emotions and fears that make this such a challenging issue for you? After all, some people would just say, “well, that’s their problem” and not worry about it.

How to Identify The Problem

You want to do two things when identifying the problem:

  1. Identify the tangible problem. What are the actual issues arising in your parents lives right now due to their financial choices?
  2. Identify the emotional problem. What’s going on with you emotionally in your reactions?

Many of us know that many is a logical tangible thing and yet we respond to it emotionally. When dealing with financially irresponsible parents, you may react strongly with anger, frustration, overwhelm, anxiety, guilt, stress, irritation or a bunch of mixed feelings. Some of those feelings probably date back to childhood. Others may be valid responses to the situation. But in order to deal with financially responsible parents, you need to sort that out.

Common Concerns About Financially Irresponsible Parents

So ask yourself very specifically, “what are my concerns about my parents?” Common worries include:

  • I will have to take care of them financially in the future. (Perhaps you already do so.)
  • They aren’t going to be able to afford a good quality of life, including medical care.
  • It’s frustrating to work so hard to be financially savvy when they’ve never done so.
  • It irritates me that they don’t know how to take care of their money.
  • My spouse and I are constantly fighting because of my parents or in-laws money choices.
  • I feel obligated to help my parents financially but I’m angry about it.

Addressing the Problem

Once you’ve sorted out the emotions from the actual financial difficulties, it’s time to address the problem.

You might want to address the emotional aspects through therapy. After all, the better that you’re able to handle the conversations about money, the better those conversations will go. You don’t have control over what your parents do or how they engage with you. However, you do have control over your reactions. Managing your reactions can help improve the entire relationship. So, consider working through your childhood and ongoing family issues about money in therapy.

Someday, of course, you might want to address the emotional content with your parents as well. But first handle the tangible stuff. Figure out the exact issues you want to address. Then ask your parents if they’re willing to have a conversation with you about your concerns. Hopefully, they’ll agree and you can have a calm conversation. If not, some families find that using text messages, voice mails, emails, and handwritten letters can get difficult conversations started.

Steps for Addressing the Problem

If your parents are willing to talk, here are the steps that you can take to address the problem:

  • Use an I statement to express your concern. “I feel worried about (this aspect of your money) because I care about you.”
  • Be very clear and precise about the thing that concerns you. If you have multiple concerns, consider addressing one at a time. For example, “I feel worried when you spend a lot of money on travel because I’m afraid that you won’t have money leftover to pay the mortgage off after you retire.”
  • Ask your parents if they feel the same concern. Listen thoroughly to their response. After all, you might discover that they have a retirement plan you didn’t even know about. Even if you don’t, you need to know if you’re even remotely on the same page.
  • If you both share the concern, brainstorm ways to solve the problem.
  • If your parents don’t share your concern, ask if you can give them some examples of why you’re worried. Be descriptive. “It seemed like you paid about $5000 for your last vacation. I was thinking about how that $5000 could go towards paying down the mortgage. That way, when you retire, you won’t have to pay that big bill. My concern is that you’ll struggle with those payments once your current level of income isn’t coming in.”
  • Try to come to an agreement. Practice patience and kindness.

Additional Tips for Addressing the Problem

Every family is different. Therefore, addressing problems with financially irresponsible parents will look different in each family. Your culture, your family dynamics, and your styles of communication will all come into play. Therefore, here are some additional things to consider when dealing with financially irresponsible parents.

  • One or more of the siblings (the parents’ children) might be the best one(s) to have this conversation. Can you work together?
  • It might be better to approach one parent or the other first in some families.
  • It’s important to be sensitive to the many relationship dynamics at play. If your parents are separated, divorced or remarried, more people are in the picture. If your parents’ parents are still alive, they may be involved financially. If you have siblings and step and half and adoptive siblings, there’s more at play. Try to get a sense of the big picture of family finances.
  • Some people prefer information over advice. Consider sending your parents articles and books about finances instead of discussing the issue directly.
  • Speak with professionals about your legal and financial options. For example, if you want to help your parents financially but don’t want to hand them cash, how can you set up a bank account that would enable you to do this? Or, if you’re paying for your parents to live with you, can you count them as dependents on your tax returns? Figure out what options you have.

Set Boundaries and Let It Go

Remember: You can only help them if you want to help them and if they want you to help them.

Do all that you can to deal with your financially irresponsible parents. Work with them. Express your love and concern. Figure out if there are tangible ways that you can help improve their financial situation. But, also, know when to step aside.

Your parents are adults. They are allowed to make their own choices. (Of course, if competence, age-related memory decline, etc. are at play then that’s a different – and much more complicated – story. Seek help from professionals working in that area of law and finance to proceed.)

At some point, you have to set your own boundaries. For example, you might determine that you’re not going to help your parents pay their bills. It’s too frustrating that they waste their money and then can’t cover the rent at the end of the month. While you don’t want them to be out on the street, at some point that might have to be your boundary. You can lovingly set boundaries. Again, therapy can assist with this.

And then, you have to find a way to make peace with the situation. It does no good to have anxiety over things which you can’t control. While you can keep trying to chip away at the problem, you also need to find ways to refocus on your own life. Practice self-care. Improve your own relationships and finances. It is never easy dealing with financially irresponsible parents. Nevertheless, they don’t have to interfere with your health, happiness, or money.

And one more thing, if you have children of your own, make sure to break the cycle. Have conversations with them early and often about finances. Open the doors of communication about money.

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