The Four Stages of the Checkbook
As Sandwich Generation dad, I serve many functions for my own father. Primary medication distributor. Friend and companion. Personal shopper. Dedicated email correspondent – he sends a lot of email, much of it about recently about why Fox News is right. (I try to tell him that Megyn Kelly being attractive doesn’t mean that the network is always right, but I’m losing that battle.) Pedicurist (not my favorite role). Main technical support guy – only yesterday I bought him a new iPad and Zagg keyboard as his old ones are grinding to a halt.
Among these, one of the most demanding and complex is being his CFO: bookkeeper, investment advisor, compliance officer, head lawyer, and insurance manager. In particular, I manage his money. This was not a straight path from Point A to Point B. In thinking about it, I realized that like grief, it meandered at its own pace through the same 4 stages: denial, anger, depression, acceptance.
In this phase, the adult parent pretends there is no problem. My mother had managed the finances (along with most everything else) in the house, so after she passed away, my father was confronted with how to keep the bills paid. Or, rather, my brother and I were confronted with it as he had just enough interest in the problem to let us solve it for him. Which we did by (a) automating everything in sight, (b) consolidating the almost 10 bank accounts into one, and (c) trying to fix a very confusing credit card situation. We also got passwords to everything – which if you haven’t done with your parent already, you should do now BEFORE you really need to. Trust me.
We also pulled his investments from the full-service broker who, based on the floor-to-ceiling envelopes stuffed with trade confirmations suggested, somehow had turned my mother into a day-trader. We moved them instead into nice, simple, boring index funds at Fidelity.
Next the parent says “I can do this myself – what the hell do I need these kids for?” For us this happened about 4 or 5 months later. He changes the online banking password so that you are locked out, pays his own bills for a while, and to prove that he is smarter than you, moves all the money to a full-service brokerage at the bank down the street. Then he tells you “what the hell did I need you for anyway?” Then he brags to your wife and your sister-in-law about what he did. True story.
In the next stage, the parent realizes just how much work managing everything is, and also starts to worry that he’ll run out of money because returns are terrible. Which, when you move everything back to a full-service full-fee broker at a bank who sells you the bank’s own proprietary full-load mutual funds, they are. This took us about 6 months where I just had to hope that he wasn’t making truly catastrophic mistakes.
The parent realizes you had their best interests at heart and asks you gently if you’d be willing to look just once at their situation. You know, just to check it. Then they quickly give you the passwords back and accept your help in re-consolidating, simplifying and moving everything back to Fidelity. Tip: do not point that this what you tried to do in the first place.
In case I didn’t emphasize it before, for all you Sandwich Generation parents out there, get visibility as soon as you possibly can. This often is best accomplished in conjunction with a health scare of some kind as parents do not yield this information easily. Also, money is one of the great taboo subjects in our society, especially true between parents and children. This article from AgingCare.com lays out some interesting strategies; another one is from the Wall Street Journal.
Whatever you do, remember that it is not a one and done situation. It takes 4 stages. If you’re lucky.