The bumper sticker is pretty funny the first time you see it: "Get Even: Live Long Enough to Become a Problem to Your Kids." Ha-ha, right? Well, not really. Today's first question comes from a reader who feels like this is happening right now and her parents are not even that old.
Dear Mary: My husband and I have been debt-free for three years. My father has recently been very ill, and my mother spilled the beans about their debt. They have two bank credit cards plus several store cards — all with large balances. They also have a mortgage, a home equity loan and a big car payment.
I'm frustrated, disgusted and heartbroken to find out my parents have so much debt in their 60s. My husband and I paid off one major credit card account for them that had a balance of several thousand dollars. Afterward, my mother went out and bought a new outfit on that card — something she did not need.
I'm not willing to do that again or go into debt to pay off their debt. I explained to her that with that kind of debt, they will never retire. Am I wrong? I would appreciate any advice you might have for us. — Julie
Dear Julie: First, congratulations on your newly achieved debt-free status! You have my utmost respect for having achieved it.
I am sorry to hear about your father's illness, but that doesn't change my response: You shouldn't bail them out by going into debt, and I think you've discovered why paying their debts, even if that doesn't require you to go into debt, isn't such a hot idea. I would say the same thing if your parents were writing to me about you. You cannot fix anyone by making them comfortable in their misery. That only enables them to stay there. And buy more stuff.
All that being said, your parents are not accountable to you for how they choose to live and the way they manage their money. You cannot legislate their lives, so you should stop trying. Your goal should be to always remain a fragrance in their lives; never become an odor.
For these reasons, I suggest you back off their financial situation and begin to diligently save and invest now because the day may come when you decide you want to contribute to their day-to-day care. But even then, you will not be responsible for their debts.
Should they die with debt, their creditors will look to their estate — not their heirs — for payment. And if the estate is not large enough to cover those debts, that's their creditors' problem, not yours. Just don't count on a big inheritance.
I hope everyone reading this — regardless of age — will take stock of the way they are managing their finances and preparing for the future. The best gift we will ever give our kids is our own solvency. In that way, we will not become a financial burden to them.
Should your parents or anyone reading this want to find the path out of debt and into solvency (as you have), I would love to be their guide and coach through the book I wrote more than 20 years ago: "Debt-Proof Living: How to Get Out of Debt and Stay That Way." It is as relevant today as it was when I wrote the first edition. It's my story together with the simple steps we took — and anyone can take — to get out of debt and change our lives.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.