When it comes to money conversations with your family, a child asking a parent for financial support can be awkward, but expected. Flip the script, however, and it can be a fraught discussion.
While it may be more socially-acceptable to give money to your adult kids, Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a wealth psychology expert, says it’s actually pretty common for children to help out their folks financially as they age, especially if they’re not in the best health. But it’s a transaction that can often be associated with shame. “No parent wants to [get older] and be financially dependent on their kids,” says Kingsbury.
This is especially true if your parents are older Boomers, who may not be accustomed to talking about money or need. That’s why it’s important to approach the situation with empathy and tact.
Take Emotion Out of It
“What’s important is to try to remove the emotion from it, or feel what you’re going to feel before you have the conversation,” says Kingsbury.
If you’re approaching your parent about helping them, think through what you want to say and offer specific examples of why you’d like to help them. For example, you could say you noticed a stack of unpaid bills, or that you notice they’ve been cutting back on certain activities they used to enjoy. Ask if they want your help.
“You want to make sure that you allow them to feel in control, to maintain some dignity,” she says. “Sometimes you ask your parents and they’re actually relieved and you have a conversation.”
Here’s how Kingsbury suggests approaching the situation, as outlined in her book Breaking Money Silence:
First, feel your feelings. “We can feel all different sorts of emotions about our parents getting older, so you can talk to a friend or a counselor, and by doing that first, by the time you approach your parent you’ve thought it through.”
Then, lead with loving intent. “Let’s say you’re frustrated and scared, and you walk in and you’re not prepared — no one’s going to be receptive,” she says. “So plan… say you’re starting to get concerned and you’d love to help them.”
Finally, give them space and time to decide. “You may have been thinking about it for three months, but it may be new to our parents,” she says. “Sometimes parents just need a little time to think about it.”
Explain that you just want everyone in the family to be in the best financial situation possible, and you’re there to help them through a difficult time, just as they were likely there to help you in the past.
Plan Ahead as Much as Possible
If you haven’t reached the crisis stage yet, then you have time to start having these conversations before there’s a ton of pressure on the situation. Discuss with your spouse what your plan will be if your parents need help, and then broach the topic with your parents.
“It’s not always comfortable, but over time it becomes less awkward,” says Kingsbury. Then when an emergency hits, you’ll be ready.
Set Your Terms Ahead of Time
Kingsbury says it’s a situation that can be similar to a child asking for money — you want to be open and transparent, and set ground rules — except that it’s more likely to be a gift of cash than a loan. But if it is a loan, set concrete rules of what the money is for and when you will be paid back.
“Handling the transaction correctly will help you better overcome the awkwardness of asking for a loan and ensure that you’re doing everything possible to mitigate the potential downsides that family and friend borrowing and lending often lead to,” says Carla Dearing, CEO of Sum180, an online financial wellness service.
The last thing you want is for aid to turn into something contentious in your family. Luckily, Kingsbury says, it can often lead to a tighter bond between parent and child.
“People feel closer to the other person, it often is a really nice, intimate thing that can happen,” says Kingsbury. “You just need to be careful to make sure everyone’s needs are being met.”