When is it okay to cut off mom?

By Walter Updegrave, senior editor


(Money Magazine) -- My mother sold her house and made a nice profit in 2007. Yet now she's in debt and owes me over $1,500. I'm 30 years old and planning a wedding this year. At what point should a child not be responsible for helping a parent who has made bad financial choices? -- Matt, Annapolis, Md.

So, basically, you're asking me when is it okay to cut off mom?

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That is a toughie. Clearly, there's a strong emotional pull for most people to do everything they can for their parents. After all, who would want to turn his back on the mother or father who raised him, helped him through school, chauffeured him to after-school activities and shepherded him to adulthood?

Certainly not you, witness the fact that you've already loaned your mom fifteen hundred bucks.

But as powerful as that urge to help out your mother may be, you don't want to jeopardize your own financial security. Not only could that be ruinous for you -- and your future family -- but it might also prevent you from assisting your mother at some point in the future if she finds herself in truly desperate straits.

Ultimately, this is a decision that you (in consultation with your fiancé) will have to make. I can't give you a rule of thumb, like putting a ceiling on the amount you lend or limiting any financial help to 10% of your income or whatever.

The answer you come up with will depend, among other things, on how willing you are to help and how much of your resources you're willing to devote to aiding your mother.

I can, however, suggest some ways you might think about this issue so you can come to a decision that makes sense for all concerned.

The first thing you want to do is think about the resources you and your future wife will require get off to a good financial start. You're planning a wedding (which itself can involve considerable expense) and you'll be setting up a new household.

Presumably, you'll have goals in mind that will require stable finances and some savings, say, buying a house, having kids, educating those kids. Maybe one or both of you are planning to return to school to enhance your career prospects.

It seems reasonable to me that taking care of your family and trying to better its financial future should be your first priority.

That doesn't mean you can't also manage to help out mom. Growing families assist parents and siblings all the time in any number of ways, not to mention contribute to charity.

But any help, should you decide to give it, should be in proportion to your resources and how large a risk of falling short of other goals you're willing to assume. That's a judgment call.

Other things you might want to consider before giving financial assistance: Does your mom need the money for something serious, or will the money go to something that is less than essential or maybe even frivolous?

Is this likely to be a rare request, or do you get the feeling it's the beginning of a nonstop series of appeals? Has she tried to get the money another way, such as taking out a loan? (If she goes the loan route, be very, very wary of co-signing and taking on liability.)

And if your mom gets the money she needs will it likely allow her to recuperate financially, or is she just postponing the day of reckoning to the future? I don't want to seem insensitive here, but I think you've also got to consider your mom's behavior before forking over more of your money.

If your mom isn't making an effort to live within her means or, worse, seems to be happy to go through whatever money she's able to get from you and others, then funding her with cash may essentially be enabling her behavior, like giving booze to an alcoholic.

That's not good for you or your mom. Ultimately, I think you've got to decide whether helping your mom in the short run will change anything in the long run. If not, then I think you have to wonder whether the resources you're taking away from your family to help her are going to good use.

That leaves the question of how to deal with this situation. You always have the option of simply going on a case-by-case basis, either giving her some or all of what she asks for or turning her down.

And who knows, maybe that will work. Maybe she's going through a difficult phase and will eventually get a handle on her finances and not have to ask constantly for your help. Or maybe after being refused enough -- or growing weary of having to ask for your help -- she'll find a way to get by without asking for your assistance.

Or you could take a more direct approach. You could have a sit-down with your mom, explain that getting a handle on your own finances is challenging enough and tell her you just don't have the wherewithal to be making loans all the time.

You could even suggest that your mom see a credit counseling agency or go to a financial adviser who's willing to work on an hourly basis. You could offer to pick up all or some of the fee. If you've got siblings, it might be worthwhile to one or more of them involved in this discussion, or at least be aware of it.

Of course, it could very well be the case that your mom needs more help than you and other family members are able to give. In that case, you might help her see if she's eligible for government assistance of some sort.

Benefits.gov, AARP's Benefits QuickLINK and the National Council on Aging's Benefits CheckUp are good places to start.

So I recommend that you and your wife-to-be discuss this situation and come up with a way to address it that's agreeable to both of you. And I suggest you do it sooner rather than later.

That way, you'll be less likely to be caught off guard if your mom comes to you for more financial assistance at a particularly inopportune time, like in the middle of planning a wedding. To top of page

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