How to Talk to Your Parents About Money and Aging

Having conversations about finances and end-of-life issues early is key
May 12, 2020 Updated: May 19, 2020

Cameron Huddleston was 35 years old when she realized she hadn’t talked to her mother about her finances early enough. She’s hardly alone.

Her experience became the launching point for a book, and during her research, she read a survey that found that more parents are comfortable having the sex talk with their children than talking about their finances and aging. She commissioned her own poll, which found that 10 percent of Americans are more comfortable talking to their parents about their romantic life than their parents’ finances.

And 9 percent were more comfortable talking about their parents’ romantic lives instead of having the money talk.

But aging and money should not be taboo topics, according to Huddleston. In her book “Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk” she gives an in-depth and comprehensive practical guide on how to talk to your parents about their finances, as well as the health and end-of-life issues that finances tie into. It should also persuade you of the necessity of the talk, with a wide range of stories of both success and ones that can serve as warnings.

“I feel like anyone who is in their 40s at least already, they have a story. They have a story of a parent who is already experiencing dementia or some kind of issue where they’ve had to get involved, or an in-law, or a grandparent,” she said. “I think as our very large generation of baby boomers, as they age and live longer, and aren’t prepared for long-term care, don’t have sufficient retirement savings—I think their children, millennials, they’re going to find themselves in a position where they are having to get involved with their parents’ lives, as caregivers, as financial caregivers, as they age, and this is just going to be a growing problem.

“And if people aren’t having the conversation, they’re not going to be prepared when their parents need their help,” she said.

This book is for everyone, Huddleston said, because it’s never too early to begin the discussion.

“It’s for anyone who has parents who are still living because all adults will need to be having these conversations with their parents,” she said.

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“Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk” by Cameron Huddleston.

Lived Experience

Huddleston is an award-winning financial journalist, and her mother never treated money as a taboo topic. So she was dismayed when she realized she was too late, and this remains one of her biggest regrets.

Eleven years ago, Huddleston’s mother was 65 when she started showing signs of Alzheimer’s. Huddleston had been a financial journalist for 15 years, but she was in her mid-30s, and still had kids in diapers, and her mom was just approaching retirement and had always had a good grasp on her personal finances. It didn’t seem like a pressing issue—and that’s the point.

By the time something happens, like signs of dementia or a health emergency such as a stroke, or death, the family is in crisis mode and has to deal with an emergency without a plan and while emotions are running high. And as the many scenarios outlined in the book show, playing catch up in these situations is both stressful and expensive.

It was in part because she had experience writing about personal finance that Huddleston was able to ask her mother to grant her power of attorney over her financial documents—and she shares a detailed story about the nightmare it can be if you’re too late (you have to prove your parent mentally incompetent in court). But even then, that meant Huddleston had to navigate this difficult and emotional situation at a pretty young age, and it’s something that could have been planned for.

“I had to play detective,” Huddleston said.

She had to dig around and trace back to find what accounts her mother held and how money was being managed. There was an investment account with about $50,000 that she didn’t even know existed until it was about to be closed, and she managed to get about $36,000 of it and put it toward her mother’s long-term care. And then there was persuading her mother it was time to move out of her house because it was no longer safe or responsible to let her live alone. It’s a difficult conversation to have when you don’t know what they would have wanted.

Huddleston remembered there was actually a perfect opening years before that, when she and her mother brought up long-term care insurance and her mother found she couldn’t get coverage because of a preexisting health condition.

“We would have been talking about a ‘what-if’ scenario. What if this happens, Mom? What would you want me to do? How would we pay for things? And if we were talking about that, a ‘what-if’ scenario, there wouldn’t have been all these emotions tied to it,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
Cameron Huddleston. (Courtesy of Cameron Huddleston)

Huddleston was, of course, able to ask her mother questions, but her mother was having more and more memory problems, and that meant Huddleston had to step in and make decisions.

You or your parent can end up feeling like you’re overstepping if it wasn’t something that was agreed upon earlier. And rather than spending that time enjoying your relationship with your parents, maybe instead you are suddenly the primary caregiver, plus financial adviser, and playing detective trying to figure out how many accounts and investments there are, whether your parents have a will, the state’s estate laws, where your parent will live, and whether there is debt.

How to Start, What to Say

After Huddleston shared her story on a podcast interview, the two hosts asked her afterward what they should do—they hadn’t yet talked to their parents about finances either. And a few years after her experience, her peers, now in their 40s, were starting to ask her pressing questions because their parents were beginning to have health issues.

There is a massive disconnect between generations because so many parents and adult children aren’t talking about money. Several polls show that the majority of adults over 50 don’t have financial and legal plans in place, and the majority of parents—close to 70 percent—expect one of their children to be their caregiver and take care of finances should they need it—but these children haven’t been informed.

Huddleston has interviewed several experts from financial psychologists to estate planners and spends the first portion of the book dispelling fears. Sometimes, the fear is foundational, as in thinking that if they talk about death, they will only hasten its arrival—which isn’t true. People who have had these discussions actually feel more prepared if crisis strikes.

Through stories as examples, Huddleston also touches on why parents might be reluctant to talk, what not to say (don’t make it about your inheritance, it’s about their well-being), and when to have these conversations (not during the family vacation).

The book is full of references and resources to help you start the conversation and make sure you cover all the bases. Should you have a will or a living trust? When should power of attorney be granted?

There is also a section on being on the lookout for scams because seniors are losing billions to fraud every year (estimates vary because it is so underreported), and how to talk to your parents about it.

She adds that in some cases, your parents’ mistrust isn’t unfounded. If you don’t have a good grasp of your own finances and aren’t responsible with money, maybe a family friend, pastor, or sibling should lead these conversations instead. But they still need to happen.

And it’s not just one talk, but an ongoing conversation. You’ll want to talk to your parents about whether they have retirement in order, what their long-term care plans are (because even if they don’t think they need it, the vast majority of seniors do), where they prefer to live, what they want done with their things after their death, and whether they want your help with any of this—because the goal is not to take over managing your parents’ financial fate, but to make sure they’re considering these important things.

At heart, this comes from a place of well-placed concern. You might even say that when talking to your parents: “Mom and Dad, you took such good care of me when I was younger. I want to be able to provide that same sort of care if you ever need it,” Huddleston wrote in the book as an example.

With the pandemic, many adults are likely thinking of their parents and are concerned for their well-being. Huddleston hopes it can be a reminder to be prepared.

“Honestly, if you’re having this conversation in your 20s, and your parents are in their 40s and 50s, it’s not too early,” she said. “It actually can be the ideal time because you want to have these conversations while your parents are still healthy and relatively young.

“You don’t want to wait until there’s a health emergency or a financial emergency to have these conversations, because, at that point, it can be too late.”