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Fifty Shades of Gray In Family Finances

shades of gray in family dynamics

Our 50 shades are not quite like the novel!

This might be one of the hardest posts I’ve ever written. I keep going back and forth on whether to share, but I do think there will be some value to some readers out there in similar situations. People can choose their careers, their friends, whether or not to have children, but we can’t choose our families. You get the good with the bad. There really are 50 shades of gray with family finances.

Our Gray Family Area

I’ve written before about how my in-laws went through a foreclosure and were forced to move to a house and an area they really don’t like because it’s all they can afford. They retired broke and live on social security. Surprisingly, they have done OK for the past four years since losing their house. I wouldn’t say it’s all butterflies and roses, but a life of forced frugality is not necessarily a bad thing.

We suspected there would be more family drama at some point, and we’ve reached that point. It’s been like like the emergency broadcast system around here lately. Jim’s parents car broke down a couple of weeks ago. It’s almost 20 years old with over 275,000 miles, so no big surprise. Also not surprisingly, they had no money to pay for repairs, let alone think about a replacement.

You Can Waste Money On A Fixed Income

Now, they do live on a very fixed income, and it’s easy to feel sympathy when you look at their lives compared to where they were a decade ago. However, they still find ways to piddle away money. My in-laws have been keeping a $150/month storage unit since they moved. They also have satellite TV, and they go out to play Bingo! Granted none of these are huge expenses, but why, why, why?

My stance on helping people who don’t help themselves has always been black and white. Don’t do it. It’s really easy to sit up on my high horse and tell people not to give money to relatives who won’t spend it wisely, but it’s another thing when it’s your own parents. It’s certainly a little more gray. I probably can so no, but I’m just the daughter-in-law. What would I do if it were my parents?

Contrasts and Similarities

I can’t answer that question because it’s like asking how the world would look if the sky wasn’t blue. My parents are not golden by any stretch of the imagination. They don’t take care of their health like they should. They are closed minded about most issues, and they love whole life insurance! But, my parents would work as Walmart greeters before they ever let themselves get in a situation where they had nothing.

Jim and I often comment about how similar our parents are.

  • Both were sweethearts from an early age, got married fairly young, and had two children.
  • Both are very traditional as far as men and women roles in the family.
  • Both our Dads left for work very early and came home often after dark, while our Moms ran the house and took care of child rearing.
  • Both of our Moms worked off and on.
  • Both sets of parents had similar annual incomes during their child raising years.

The Difference Between Savers And Spenders

The big difference was that my parents were always savers while Jim’s were spenders. My Dad was an entrepreneur and was always hustling after his traditional 9-5 job. Jim’s Dad usually went out with his buddies after work. I don’t ever advocate not spending quality time with your family, and I think both Dads do regret missing out on so much family life, but it is what it is.

My parents never carried debt other than business and mortgage loans that were paid off over 20 years ago. They always spent way less than they earned and put extra money into traditional investments and into growing my Dad’s businesses. Their hustle ultimately won the prize with a seven figure payday when my Dad sold his final remaining business a few years ago.  Decades of hard work has given them a comfortable retirement and ability to splurge on American Girl dolls for the grandkids and new Cadillacs every few years.

My in-laws always traded up when they made more money. They moved to bigger houses several times, bought better cars, had more things. Their ultimate undoing was the last recession when their debt load and lack of work finally wiped them out. All the payments were just too much. Years of hard work has resulted in a storage pod and a 20 year old car that won’t run.

I don’t say this to brag on my family or throw stones at Jim’s. It’s just a excellent contrast of how two very similar families can be so alike in the beginning yet have amazingly different end games based on how they lived in the middle.

How Should You Help Parents Without Money?

How on earth do we justify helping our parents? How on earth do we not help them?

We’ve talked and talked, and I think we’ve come up with a plan. We did end up giving my in-laws money to repair their car, which was probably a mistake. One, because there were no conditions associated with the money. Two, the repair did not work. Now the mechanic wants another $800 to replace the radiator. The car isn’t worth that much!

Our New Plan

Do Nothing– We want to wait it out for a few weeks and see if they can come up with a plan to cut expenses or bring in some income. Jim’s Dad was offered a job a while back, but he turned it down. I think he feels the work beneath him, so we’ll see if he still feels that way now that they have no transportation.

Give a Gift– There is no way we are putting another $800 into a sinking ship. We also will not cosign a loan or buy them a car. What we have decided we can live with is giving them our car if it comes to that. We will replace it with a new to us used vehicle. While our car is certainly no prize, it should last a few more years until they can hopefully save up to buy something on their own. We view this as a gift to our family and not something we will ever see a return on.

Put Our Foot Down– We will give them the car on the condition that this is it. If they drive it into the ground and are in the same boat a few years down the road, we’re done.

Speak Our Opinion But Don’t Hope For Miracles– We need to have a really hard conversation with Jim’s parents about their dire need to start saving money. They need to accept responsibility for their situation and stop blaming the government, the economy, or failing health.

Whether they get rid of their storage unit, cut their TV, or start earning more money, it needs to be saved and not swallowed up by an increase in monthly spending. It is so hard to speak to parents as you would to a child, but we have to do it. I also don’t hold out a ton of hope that our advice or warning will matter. If losing your home of almost 30 years doesn’t do it, I’m not sure anything can.

Fifty Shades Of Gray

I like our plan, but the hard part will be sticking to our guns. It’s one thing to say no for a car repair, but what if one of our parents needs a root canal, a hearing aid, or a medicine Medicare doesn’t cover? It isn’t so black and white, is it?

If parents of young children can get anything out of our current situation, it has to be get out of debt and start saving now for retirement. Your new car or premium HBO channels are not going to mean very much 30 or 40 years down the road.

I’m sure my daughter will have stress and struggle in her life, but I sure as heck don’t want any of it to be over having to take care of her parents because we blew all our money.

Have you helped your family financially? Are some people never able to stop living paycheck to paycheck? 

Image: Wikipedia Commons




About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. What a tough situation to be in. I agree it’s not black and white. I think the greatest gift a parent can give to their child is not being a financial burden. Unfortunately I don’t think some people think about that when they’re spending the money they should be saving for their future. I hope it all works out for you and Jim’s family.

  2. That is definitely a tough situation Kim. We have a similar one in our family. Two sets of parents are doing relatively great and one parent is not. We almost lost them 4 years ago – which forced them into drawing SS early which has just caused more problems. I tend to see thing as black and white as well, but throwing family in the middle of that can be tough – especially when it’s parents. We’ve helped on one or two occasions, and have tried to use it as a way to encourage/challenge on changes. Unfortunately, you can only take them to water and not force them to drink it.

  3. MomofTwoPreciousGirls

    I will sound awful here, but I’ve watched my MIL carry the burden of caring for her parents. Her father promised her mother she could die in their home. So for the last 10 years my MIL has worked fulltime, and cared for her parents. While they have had some in home nursing care when something major happens she has to put her life on hold. Her mom passed away 2 years ago but dad is 90 and chugging along. Her and her husband want to leave CT and move south, she wants to be able to take more time off to be with her grandkids and they want to travel. She can’t do any of this because of her obligations to her father.
    I love my children. I do not ever want them to waste a moment of their lives caring for me. I have told my husband and will tell my kids the same as they grow, put me in a home! All I ask Is they visit! I tell both my mother and MIL that my children will just be beginning their adult lives and I will be focusing my time and energy on them, the little people that I carried in my body and brought into this world. I will not be caring for any of our parents. I will ensure their care is good, but I’m not wiping anyones butts!! Except maybe my own grandbabies.

    I’m pretty sure my in laws will be ok financially but I I know my mother is not. She will say it’s because she took care of us but I’m pretty sure her money goes to clothing more groceries than she could ever eat and a garage full of crap/decorations for every single holiday! I don’t feel an ounce of guilt.

    • I don’t think you’re awful at all. I think all too many people are in that situation, and there really are no easy or good options.

  4. This is a good warning to everyone in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and heck, even 50s: if you don’t spend some time making sure you have a viable retirement plan you simply are not going to make it. If you do make it, you’ll find yourself in tough situations.

    I think you’re smart for gifting your car and then saying “this is it.” Hopefully they realize they got lucky in this situation but shouldn’t expect to be helped in the future. Really tough when it’s your own family, though.

  5. oh man tough situation and I don’t envy you for having to figure that out. Just out of curiosity, what does Jim’s sibling think if they are still around? I know for me and my brother, if my parents were gone and he needed money and came to me I would not give him a penny, and having a conversation about how he should be better with money would make zero difference, but that’s also based on our history and our rocky relationship. If it were my parents, who took care of me at one point, I don’t know what I would do frankly. 🙁 I hope you can come up with a solution that works for everyone.

    • Jim’s sister agrees that they need help, but she isn’t really in a position to help financially. She is more hands on for day to day stuff. I think they both very frustrated.

  6. What an amazingly eye-opening story about the differences between savings and spending, Kim. Are Jim’s parents open at all to you helping them budget and cutting out stuff, or are they still in denial. I think you guys would maybe feel better about helping them if you saw some effort on their part. Hoping they learn their lesson now that rock bottom is so very close. 🙁

    • I think they know their situation is not good, but they are still always going to do it tomorrow. Even after all this time, you’d think they would see that it needs to be now. Jim’s Mom did call the storage unit company to see what her options were about getting it closed out. They didn’t close it yet, but at least that was a good first step.

  7. Where my Dad, who is still living, is concerned there’s no “gray” involved. The man, even during the times he was making very good money, never saved a dime. Not a dime. But, believe it or not, it’s been 33 years since he retired at 62 and he has only asked me for money a couple of times. The man was super lucky. He is the poster child for the maxim that the exception proves the rule.

    Without planning it, he ended up working long enough for 3 different state, federal and local government agencies to qualify for 3 modest pensions. With his Social Security, this has given him enough money to live a modestly comfortable life in complete independence. (So, it’s clear that my frugal saver mindset doesn’t come from him!)

    The few times he has hinted that he needs a little extra for some special purpose, I have sent it to him because it has been no financial hardship for me to do so — given that my passive income is now almost 3 times my basic living expenses. And every so often I’ll send him a check for a few hundred “just because.”

    However, I really do ask myself every so often: what would he have done, what would I have done about him, if he had not been so lucky?

    • I think our parents are really lucky to have social security. Younger people who live life like my inlaws might not be so lucky down the road. I think lots of baby boomers had pension jobs, so it really wasn’t that much of a priority to save. I do wish our family had been able to work in a position that had retirement benefits.

    • I think our parents are really lucky to have social security. Younger people who live life like my inlaws might not be so lucky down the road. I think lots of baby boomers had pension jobs, so it really wasn’t that much of a priority to save. I do wish our family had been able to work in a position that had retirement benefits.

  8. Wow, tough situation. I have a family, siblings and adult children that all are terrible money managers so I understand the frustration level. What does Jim want to do about this situation? I think I would be gifting them the Total Money Makeover book for one thing. There choice if they don’t heed the advice. Can you afford the additional $800 for the radiator replacement? At this stage lecturing them won’t help.

    We are retired, my brother is close to retiring and not at all prepared, my parents have always spent all their money and have very little spare cash. See, family drama everywhere.

    • I think Total Money Makeover would just get swept up into the clutter….. We could pay for the new repair, but I’m afraid it’s kind of like pouring a glass of water on a forest fire. The car is literally falling apart. Family drama sucks.

  9. I am so thankful that my parents have a solid foundation and their ducks in a row. They have paid off their mortgage and are living a good life in retirement. I do have an uncle that has struggled financially all his life. At rock bottom, he agreed to let me help him with his finances. I spent hours and hours making calls and sorting through bills. A month later, he no longer wanted help. It’s very hard when they ask for money and they are spending on things you would never dream to spend on.

    • I think that is very common. People think they want help, but when they see that they will have to change their lifestyle, they balk. After being in debt, there is no better feeling than having your financial ducks in a row, but it’s really hard to get from A to B. I think the journey is just too hard for some people.

  10. This is really a tough position for you to be in. I am sorry. I agree with your decision, as hard as it may be. I have a very good friend that works 2 jobs and she is past the retirement age. Her kids do not have to take care of her and they would if they had to because she works hard and takes every opportunity to take care of herself.
    My husband, and I about 4 months ago made the decision that we will never loan anyone money any longer. We will “gift: others money if they are helping themselves. If they are not they need to learn the “lesson” like we did and change the way the handle their money.
    My dad who passed away last March was the most generous man I know and he worked until he passed at 75 years old. He was still working, and working hard. I would have given him my last dime.
    People that put in the effort and do their best deserve help, ones that are irresponsible and entitled do not. Plain and simple.
    Besides when you loan a person money over and over you are not loving them well because you are not teaching them to fish but just giving them fish.

    • I hope they will make an effort this time. My mother in law did call about closing out her storage unit. It isn’t a done deal, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

  11. I worry the same about my GFs parents too. They live OK, but not great. So far, no requests for money (except the brother a while ago), but I can see it coming…

  12. I helped my parents raise more money. I worked as a part-time student before. And, when I was working, I felt I had a say on how we spend money. I talked to them openly and raised some area of concerns where they missed. Thankfully, it really helped them see what they needed to do. Talking to parents about finances is really a good strategy. We have to do it in a way that is open and “nonthreatening”.

  13. I’m in a similar situation. My in-laws now live with us due to a mix of bad luck (health problems/layoff) and bad money management. We bought a house that has a guest house (my stipulation for letting them with us) but we do make them pay rent.

    Comparatively, my mom is a saver. She’s careful with her money and has even stopped working as much, since she can live comfortably on a minimal income. We’ll never have to worry about taking care of her financially.

    So the deal is, we help his parents up to a point. I don’t want to cosign on an auto loan. They have dial-a-ride which works fine for them. They can save up if it’s really important. We won’t advance them money anymore. A $300 ticket on my card took three months to be paid back in full.

    • I suspect we might be in a similar situation at some point. The ironic thing is that I would almost welcome it now because it would help me tremendously with child care. It will probably happen when my daughter is able to take care of herself.

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