When a Parent’s Spending Habits Become an Issue

December 21, 2017

Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar. You’re at your weekly visit to Dad’s house, maybe going over some bills, when you notice a suspicious charge on his bank statement. It might be on the low side – say, $14.99 – referencing a generic account name like “Great American Heroes”. These types of trial purchases, often selling a book or DVD series, are often how seniors get unwittingly roped into much larger monthly purchase fees they can’t afford, for products they will never use. Or perhaps you spy some new golf clubs propped up in the closet, when in fact Dad hasn’t been able to manage a full swing for years.
There are lots of reasons seniors are easy targets for misguided spending – whether it be just normal slowing down associated with aging; impulse buying, which also can be a sign of an aging brain; or actual cognitive impairment. Here are some of the warning signs to look for that might indicate a need to take action:

  • Unopened bills and mail piling up
  • Late statements and/or random charges
  • Extravagant purchases or ones that don’t seem to fit Dad’s normal tastes
  • Creditors calling
  • A spike in charitable solicitations and/or thank yous
  • A sudden an unexplained change in Dad’s investment pattern

Taking that first step to address the issue can be daunting, for sure. Try thinking of it as simply starting a conversation, rather than staging an actual takeover of Dad’s finances. That may need to be considered at some point  – but for now, think of simply starting a dialogue with some open-endedquestions that are non-threatening and help Dad feel like he’s still in control. “Tell me about that new set of clubs you bought” or “I saw a pile of statements sitting on the coffee table – can I help you sort through those?” are ways to kick things off.
It also can be disarming for mom or dad if you talk about your own spending and ways you’ve found to help keep things in check. For instance, you might broach the phone solicitation subject with “Mom, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from people asking for money around holiday time. I decided to pick one cause I really care about and give them a one-time donation of $50.” Being direct and specific about your own situation might help your parent relax and realize they’re not alone in having to address these challenges.
If these approaches don’t get you far, or Dad offers answers that are troubling, it might be time to bring an objective third party into the mix – a financial advisor, attorney, or trusted family friend – to help make the case for Dad getting some assistance. He might be more willing to discuss finances with someone in the field who can offer to help put a plan in place. Whether you handle things on your own or with some expert guidance, this piece by Gregory Karp of the Washington Tribune has some helpful guidelines to walk you through the process.
No matter how much you might want to spare Dad any embarrassment, remember that this is one of those situations that’s almost guaranteed to get worse over time. And waiting too long risks parties getting involved who may not have your parent’s best interests at heart. There’s lots of great online support and information available on the topic to get you headed in the right direction; head here  and here for two helpful pieces we found.