Mom is spending like crazy: What can I do?

@Money August 26, 2011: 12:53 PM ET

NEW YORK (Money) -- My widowed mother-in-law is hooked on catalog shopping and has gone through much of the money her husband left her. At the rate she's spending -- about $70,000 a year -- it won't be long before she goes through what she has left. She still works and has equity in her home. But we're worried that when she runs through her assets, the burden will fall on us, at the expense of our children. We've tried talking to her, but it ended in tears. What can we do? -- T.J.

Mixing money and family relationships can get you into some pretty volatile situations. And the one you describe seems especially fraught with peril.

Based on the information you presented, this situation appears to be a financial train wreck in the making, which is all the more upsetting because you believe your family will have to live with the consequences.

Your trepidation -- and desire to head off this looming catastrophe -- seems perfectly reasonable. After all, the notion that you and your wife might end up having to support a parent is hardly farfetched, even in the absence of outsize spending.

A recent MetLife study found that the percentage of adult children providing personal care and/or financial assistance to a parent has more than tripled over the past 15 years. The study estimated that these caregivers have lost nearly $3 trillion in wages, pensions and Social Security benefits because they left the workforce or cut back their hours to care for an aging parent.

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That said, it's possible your mother-in-law may see things much differently. She's working, living in her own home, spending her own money, and she hasn't asked you for a dime. She may feel that you're sticking your nose where it doesn't belong.

Maybe that accounts for the tears you mentioned.

While I understand that you don't want to end up paying the price for what you see as her spendthrift behavior, I'm not sure how much influence you can realistically exert. You've already approached her once and it didn't go well. Aside from being ineffective, another intervention might weaken whatever relationship your family still has with your mother-in-law -- not to mention create tension between you and your wife.

Help your aging parents

There is one move you might consider, though. In family situations, the underlying message sometimes gets lost in emotional reactions that may have little or nothing to do with the issue at hand. Simmering resentments at perceived slights, quarrels at past family events, lingering suspicion and distrust stemming from any other number of reasons -- can make it difficult even for family members who care for each other to approach a touchy issue dispassionately.

That's why you might want to turn to a neutral party for help. Find someone your mother-in-law may feel more receptive to and comfortable talking with; someone who doesn't bring the emotional and psychological baggage to the situation that a relative might.

Specifically, I'm thinking about a financial adviser who could sit down with your mother-in-law, go over her finances with her and give her an honest, independent evaluation of where she stands -- and show her what her retirement years might look like if she stays on her present course.

Protecting your parents: Keep the sharks at bay

In this case, your best bet is probably a financial planner who would be willing to work on an hourly or flat-fee basis, rather than one looking for an ongoing relationship.

Your wife's mom clearly has enough dough left to foot the bill for such a one-time engagement. But to boost the odds of her going along with the plan, you and some other family members may want to pick up the cost, which likely won't run more than a few hundred dollars.

That still leaves the question of who should present this proposal to her. Given your history with your mother-in-law, it might sink the plan from the get-go if you do it. Perhaps another relative, or even a friend of hers who is concerned about her spending, would stand a better chance.

Is my financial planner making me enough money?

There's no guarantee, of course, that she'll agree to a meeting. For that matter, even if she does and the adviser expresses concerns similar to yours, she may not be willing to change.

Whatever you decide, I suggest that you and your wife start thinking seriously about how you'll react if your mother-in-law winds up requiring help. Will you take her in? Provide limited support so she can live modestly on her own? Turn her away since she wouldn't heed your earlier warnings?

These possibilities, as well as any others you may come up with, all have their downsides. But that's the way life works sometimes. We have options, but none are particularly appealing. Better to discuss them ahead of time, though, than make a quick decision under duress. To top of page

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