Ask Jonathan: "How Do I Talk to My Mom About Her Finances?"

Jonathan Magolnick

Written by Jonathan Magolnick on Wed Oct 21 2020.

Ask Jonathan: "How Do I Talk to My Mom About Her Finances?"

Hi Jonathan,

I’m having some trouble getting my mom to open up about her finances. I’m not with her everyday in her home, so I want to make sure she’s spending wisely. She’s getting closer to retirement, so I’d also like to get a sense of what her savings looks like. How can I get her to be more open with me?

Thanks for your help!


Hi Betty,

Thanks for writing. This is a common challenge that many of Carewell’s members face with their aging parents. Asking about finances has always been a taboo topic. Plus, when you think of it from your mom’s perspective, she’s probably always been the one to look out for you. Now, with the roles beginning to reverse, she may be reluctant to transition from caregiver to care recipient.

Whether your mom is striving to maintain her independence, or she is already overwhelmed and doesn’t want to burden you, it’s important you start slow and establish that you’re coming from a place of support, not control. Be honest about your intentions.

It’s great that you’re already thinking about how you can help your mom. While I hope she is still relatively healthy, it’s important that you have the conversation before her health declines. This will likely take the form of a series of discussions until you get all the information you need. Framing the talks in a way that your mom will not get defensive or suspicious is key to having a productive conversation.

Here are a few tips we’ve gathered from firsthand experience, as well as member feedback, to broach the subject of finances during your next visit:

Bring in your immediate family members. Whether it’s your mom’s spouse or any of your siblings, make sure everyone is around for bigger conversations on long-term financial and health planning. It helps to avoid information being caught in siloes, and keeps everyone on the same page. Of course, make sure everyone involved has a close relationship with your mom, so she doesn’t feel embarrassed discussing deeply personal matters with an estranged family member.

Don’t stage a coup. These are your mom’s finances. Reiterate that you are here to help her get organized and serve as a partner—not a boss. That may mean moving at a slower pace until she gets more comfortable sharing. You may even disagree on next steps, so accept that and continue to work with her. It will take time to get on the same page when you butt heads, but being patient matters most.

Focus on goals instead of money in the bank. If your mom is hesitant to share the specific details of her finances and assets, you can start the conversation by asking her how she wants to spend her post-retirement years. You can then focus on what actionable savings and financial management steps you need to take to achieve that lifestyle or contingency plan. Make it about her preferences so you can create a plan to meet those inclinations as closely as possible in the future.

Ask for her advice. Another way to get your mom to open up about her own finances is to ask her for help with yours. She’ll share insights on how she is approaching savings and retirement. Be sure to ask for concrete examples. This also shifts the tone of the conversation away from her end-of-life planning to one where she is helping inform your own financial planning.

Use current and family events. If your mom stays glued to the news like most seniors, she’s tapped into the constant news cycle around healthcare and tax policies, as well as the pandemic. To break the ice, you can lean on recent news to help bring up why it’s important to talk about these decisions and plans. Zooming in, if you or your siblings have any big family moments— maybe the birth of her grandchild— you can use those occasions to jumpstart a discussion.

Once you decide how to begin the conversation, here are few topics you should discuss with your mom:

Everyday expenses. The most immediate way to help your mom with her financial planning is by offering to assist with budgeting her immediate expenses. How is she managing her rent or mortgage? Which recurring bills and subscriptions is she signed up for? Review her monthly spending on food, personal care, leisure, and transportation. Creating a budget for these expenses can help establish how much money she can allocate to her savings on a monthly basis.

Areas of support. Ask her how you can help. There are small tips and tricks you can share with her that will not only make her financial management easier, but will help build trust so you can tackle more complex topics and requests down the road. Try setting automatic bill pay, fraud alerts, and credit monitoring systems for more proactive management.

Location of important documents. When the time comes, you need to know where your mom keeps her legal and financial documents. Even if she’s not comfortable disclosing the contents of those documents yet, ask her to share where they are, so that in an emergency you have access. This is an exercise in trust, so no peeking if she does tell you where you can find them. If she is open to sharing the contents with you, offer to help organize, and securely digitize, her tax returns, will, and power of attorney documents. While you’re at it, make copies of her insurance and ID cards.

Open accounts, contacts, and login information. Get a sense of the bank and credit accounts your mom holds, as well as any investments, debts, and contact information for financial planners. She can compile this information, as well as login information and PIN numbers, and keep the info in the same place as the important documents you discuss. Over time, you can work together to review open accounts to inform her savings plans.

Emergency planning and retirement. Once you’ve covered the basics and your mom has opened up, it’s time to dive into meatier topics. While you’ve likely already discussed what her retirement goals are, this conversation is where you establish how much it will cost. There are some difficult questions around whether your mom can afford the lifestyle she wants to maintain in retirement. With support from her family, is it feasible?

In addition to essential retirement planning, discuss how you would pay for medical expenses in the event of an emergency. Find out if she has long-term care insurance, and review whether, if needed, you could afford assisted living. These are harder topics to bring up, but the sooner you mention them, the sooner you both can develop a plan before you need to execute on it.

There’s a lot to cover, and it won’t happen all at once. Remember to be gentle and patient, and take notes!

Best of luck, Betty.


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