Beth Pinsker: ‘Mom and Dad, how much money do you have?’: the question you need to ask your parents now


If you’ve got dreams of golden years filled with traveling, playing pickleball, reading books by the pool or doing whatever makes you happy, then you’d better find out if there’s a big obstacle that could derail your plans.

Your retirement won’t just be your own if you’ve got parents who might need your help. 

Most often, it’s the other way around, with the oldest generation of a family the most well off. In those cases, the talk you need to have is about how you’re going to handle any inheritance. That’s important, too, but it falls in the category of a good problem to have.

Meanwhile, a third of middle-aged adults fall in the other category and are providing support to a parent, according to a 2020 AARP study. And just over 40% of Americans think they will eventually be in that position. 

If you don’t know that’s coming, it can be a shock to your financial plans. Consider the rising cost of care in the U.S. The cost of an in-home health aide now averages more than $5,000 a month, according to Genworth
while an assisted-living facility costs $4,500 and a private room in a nursing home runs $9,000. 

Even if your parents have some funds, they might not have enough. Medicare does not cover those kinds of costs, and a person has to spend down almost all their assets before they qualify for Medicaid. The AARP study found that 50% of people who were helping their parents were contributing more than $1,000 a month. 

You can head off a lot of problems with some version of this simple, direct question: “Mom and Dad, how much money do you have?”

Go ahead, just ask. And if you’re on the other side of the equation and you’re in the position of needing help from your children, the same applies. It might feel uncomfortable for a few minutes, especially if your family is not used to discussing money. You can soften this by making it about how your intention is to help, not meddle or be intrusive.

“Approach it with as much transparency and authenticity as you can,” says Erika Rasure, a financial therapist in St. Louis. But you can’t make a real retirement plan for yourself unless you know the answer to this question.

Ask sooner rather than later

It doesn’t take much digging to find a sad tale to illustrate what happens if you don’t know the details of your parents’ financial needs. If it hasn’t happened to you or somebody in your family already, you probably know plenty of people who have had to help out their parents, or have had them move in, and who have seen it delay their own plans for retirement. 

But the sooner you know, the sooner you can confront the issue head on and take proactive steps. 

Larry Pon, a certified public accountant and financial adviser based in Redwood Shores, Calif., helped a family where the matriarch and patriarch were in danger of running short of money if they ran into health problems as they aged. They had four adult children, who were all doing well in professional careers and who were spread out around the globe. 

Pon suggested that the family elders get a long-term-care insurance policy, which would cover nursing care if they needed it. However, the monthly premium was more than they could afford on their own. So that Thanksgiving, when the kids all flew home, they had a conversation. They even invited Pon.

“I said I’d just stay for a few minutes and say hi,” he says. 

The talk went something like this: “We need some help with this. Do you want to pay a couple hundred each now versus $1,200 a month each later?” The kids opted to help now, and they set up automatic deposits to make it easier to transfer the money consistently. 

The parents ended up residing together in a senior-living community that stepped up their care as they needed it, and they were able to handle the buy-in costs, as well as monthly fees that started around $7,000, thanks to the insurance and the help from their family. 

“This took planning. It was years in the making,” Pon adds. 

No time like the present

If you want to have a conversation like this but you’ve been putting it off, one way to get over the hump is to set a deadline for yourself — and then set a backup deadline, suggests Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist based in Los Angeles. 

“We don’t get an infinite amount of chances. It might just be once a year during a holiday,” Clayman says.

The deadline gives you a sense of urgency. If that time for you happens to be Thanksgiving when you’re visiting family anyway, you don’t have to blurt out the big question at the dinner table. Instead, find a quiet moment, like when you’re washing dishes. The backup plan comes into play because we’re all human, and some conversations are difficult to have, so we miss our chances. 

“Each time we’ve intended to have this conversation and haven’t, it can feel like a sense of failure,” says Clayman. 

She suggests making the backup plan something a little less convenient, like saying that you’ll buy a plane ticket and make a separate visit. “That makes the Thanksgiving option more attractive by having a fallback plan that’s not as good,” she says. 

One final tip is to make sure that everyone affected by the financial planning gets a chance to be part of the conversation. That might include siblings and, especially, spouses. 

“This is a time for you and your spouse to really be on the same page. This can be a tremendous amount of money,” says Clayman. 

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