Mendoza School of Business

Parents’ spending worries a frugal daughter

Published: October 30, 2005 / Author: Dave Grundy


Dear Chris,

I am a grown daughter of middle-class parents. Growing up, I remember constantly hearing that money was very tight and that my dad could lose his job at any minute. As a result, I am moderately frugal with my money. I don’t re-use dryer sheets and envelopes, but you will be hard pressed to find a brand-name snack food in my pantry.

In retrospect, I realize that although my mother always talked about how we were a heartbeat away from becoming destitute, she certainly didn’t spend like it. My parents have always lived above their means.

My dad lost his job two years ago and has not had steady income since; my mom is still working. I understand my mother’s frustration with my father’s lack of employment, and she is constantly talking about how she doesn’t have a dime to spare.

Chris, they eat out at nice restaurants at least three times a week. My mom shops constantly. Her weekly grocery bill alone is often over $200. They both have clothes in the closets that still have the tags on! I get tired of hearing about her problems when she does nothing to fix them.

The other thing I worry about is that my sisters and I will have to foot the bill should my parents need to go into nursing facilities. My father has zero retirement and I am afraid my mom will run through hers. She is already talking about buying a condo when they retire.

Since I know how to live frugally, I want to give my mother advice on how she can save, but I really don’t feel it is my place. I also feel guilty because I know I should not complain about having to take care of my parents as they age. I guess it will be a hard pill to swallow when I am paying the price (literally) for something that could have been prevented.

Should I just keep my mouth shut and quit being so selfish?

Worried Daughter, Dowagiac


Dear Worried Daughter,

Anyone with a cupboardful of generic chips should not feel selfish, so please don’t lay that on yourself. Plus, there was not one mention of inheritance or personal gain in your letter, so you certainly don’t sound selfish — only concerned with good reason.

So what should you do? Maybe sneak into your mother’s closet and plant a copy of “Overcoming Overspending: A Winning Plan for Spenders and Their Partners” by Olivia Mellan, a nationally known money coach. Your mom might think she bought the book.

But two experts, including Mellan herself, have a different recommendation.

“Step in and absolutely talk to your parents,” Mellan says. “But do it in a way that’s tactful. Share your vulnerabilities.”

Sandra Collins, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in communication, sees long-term and short-term problems with keeping quiet.

Long-term, you might, indeed, have to care for your parents. Short-term, your relationship with your folks could become jaded. “Every time your parents eat at a nice restaurant or your mom buys a blouse she doesn’t need, it can feel to you like the sacrifices you’re making for the sake of being financially sound are a waste,” she says.

She agrees tact is in order, especially because people don’t like other to point out their problems. “Express how you feel in a way that focuses on your parents’ situation rather than on the possibility you might have to take care of them,” she advises. “Say something like, ‘When I see you spend so much money on clothes, I feel worried about how you will be able to retire and live well when you get older.’ “

Then, consider offering this: “I’d really like to go with a financial planner with you to look at your goals and see if you have enough money for them,” Mellan suggests. “That way a third party can look at the money and tell them if they have enough.”

Of course, “Family is often the last people (others) listen to,” Mellan says. “It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s worth trying.”

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Topics: Mendoza