The Money Talk: The One With the Parents’ Retirement

By Ellevest Team

Not-so-fun fact: 61% of women say they’d rather talk about their own death than have a conversation about money. That’s some societal money taboo BS, and we’re ready to change that. So this is The Money Talk, a series in which we’ll be answering example* questions on how to kick-start important money convos.

Dear Ellevest,

I have a big family event coming up, and I can’t wait to see everyone. There’s just one problem: I need to have a long-overdue talk with my parents. The thing is … I think maybe I’m their retirement plan. Either that or they just don’t have one.

A friend recently told me she’s been helping with her parents’ retirement, and it made me stop and think: I have no idea how much — if anything — my parents have saved up. They literally never talk about it. If I need to plan to take care of them, I need to know that ASAP so I can make those plans. But I don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them feel guilty. What do I do?

Tongue-Tied and Troubled

The Money Talk: The One With the Parents’ Retirement

Dear Tongue-Tied,

First of all, it’s 100% wonderful of you that you’ll change your plans to help your parents if they end up needing it. But yeah: That convo can make orchestrating a family dinner for 12 look like a piece of cake.

You’re not alone: Nearly a third of adult children end up helping their aging parents out financially. And you’re also right: You need to have this talk ASAP. You don’t want to wait to find out they need your help until they really need your help. Tensions run high during a crisis situation, so that’s basically guaranteeing some extra drama. And if you talk now and find out they’re off track, you might be able to help them make some changes while they’re still able to turn things around.

How to ask parents about their retirement plans

1. Pick a non-threatening time.

Family gatherings are generally a mishmash of “let’s agree to have some happy family time” and “stressful prep of my home for guests who are expecting this day to be perfect” — neither of which is a great time for a possibly emotional discussion.

If you’ll be around for a couple days, maybe don’t broach the subject until later in your visit, when the main event is over and you’re sitting around catching up and watching movies.

2. Start with non-threatening questions.

Such as:

“Hey Mom, I’m working on making some money plans and trying to figure out what to do next — what were you and Dad doing for retirement when you were my age?”

“I just made a will and I wanted you to have a copy so that there are no surprises. Have you updated yours lately?”

“I keep hearing stories of peoples’ parents getting scammed. Has anyone ever tried to do that to you?” (A very gentle lead-in if your parents are particularly sensitive.)

3. Tell them you love them.

Likelihood of pissing them off and making them defensive? High. Likelihood of you being pissed off you have to ask this question? Also high. So tell them up front that you love and respect them. And tell them you’re asking in case they need your help down the road — whether it’s helping them out financially or helping them carry out those plans.

4. Don’t try to solve anything yet.

Just listen. It takes time and more info to make a fix-it plan, if that’s what’s required. And who knows: Their “we’re behind our goals” might be your “you’re totally fine” or “we can definitely work with this.”

5. If you need to, ask for documentation.

Ask them if you can follow up by sharing their documentation, like banking and investment account info, wills and trusts, and insurance policies. Then you can take a look and see if you need to start a plan.

If you’ve got siblings, it might be the time to get them involved so everyone’s got the same info as you decide what to do next. And if you can afford it, a financial planner might be a good place to start — always a good idea to get a neutral outsider in for a second opinion.

Good luck! You got this.
The Ellevest Team

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Note: The person asking the question in this article isn't real. We made her up so we can show you the kind of tough money talks people sometimes struggle with. In other words, this is a hypothetical scenario that doesn’t represent any Ellevest client, and it’s by no means individually tailored advice.

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Ellevest Team

Ellevest helps women build and manage their wealth through goal-based investing, financial planning, and wealth management. Our mission is to get more money in the hands of women.