Family Finances: What I Learned from My Mother

Discussing finances with your family can get complicated, but it's worth the effort.

Discussing finances with your family can get complicated, but it’s worth the effort.

My mother, Elaine Sherman, and I participated in a webcast about talking to your parents about family finances. It was part of a series of conversations moderated by More magazine and sponsored by Wells Fargo. We were interviewed, together, by Jennifer Braunschweiger, More’s Deputy Editor. I hope our web audience learned at least a few things. But as I always do when listening to my mother, I did as well.Among them:

Family meetings are a fraught concept: Sometimes when families are faced with a crisis – an older parent lacking funds to cover healthcare bills or escalating living expenses – an adult sibling decides to call a meeting to sort it all out. Having everyone in the same place to talking about money and marshalling resources seems like it would be a great idea. But my mother pointed out that siblings who don’t have the resources of others may feel put on the spot. Another option? A series of sequential conversations to get everyone on the same page. Group emails can also be particularly helpful.

Parents may not mind being asked for help getting out of debt. Parents who have the resources to help may, in fact, be very willing, particularly if the debt was incurred as a result of a job loss or some other event not in the adult child’s control. That said, my mother suggested parents not to take on the full responsibility for paying down the debts. She’d want to see the child making headway on his/her own as well and noted that perhaps their contributions could be matched ala 401(k).

A financial advisor can be a partner for a parent whose lost a spouse. My parents always managed the family finances on their own while they were married – with occasional help from their accountants and attorneys. They never had a financial advisor. But when my father died, my mother lost her financial sounding board. Truth be told, she always managed the money more than my father did. But she’d bring big decisions to him and they’d hash through them together. Without him, she was on her own and not comfortable with that. She has found a financial advisor stepped into that role quite nicely. She’s comfortable talking to him about big money issues. He’s both manager – for things she doesn’t want to do anymore – and sounding board. In other words, a partner for hire.

Even when they’re adults, you can still talk to your kids in the car. One of the big problems with conversation in general is that technology stifles it. It’s rare to have a conversation these days over the phone without the computer or smart phone doing its attention-grabbing thing in the background. The truly important conversations, like ones about family finances, my mom suggested should be tackled where technology is not in the way – doing the dishes after a family dinner, perhaps. Or, as you did when they were teenagers, on a radioless drive in the car.

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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