moms and money

Reader P. J. asks:

who does mom's yard work?

Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My mother-in-law lives alone in an enormous house and has no income, although she does have enough in savings that she can live comfortably for a while. We’ve tried really hard to get her to move into a more manageable house, because the one she has needs a lot of work — yard work, roof work, floor work, etc. My husband and I live pretty far away from her, and we both work and don’t have time to take care of little details for her. We found out she just grossly overpaid for some lawn work (full disclosure: none of us could come over and do it for free), and I’m worried she’s going to spend her savings unwisely because she just doesn’t know how much certain things are worth. What can I do?

Dear P.J.:

This is a really tough one. The problem with taking care of adult parents is that they’re adults. Your m-i-l has been making her own life decisions for decades now, and unless she lives with you or is under your protection due to mental or physical infirmity, you don’t really get much of a say about what she does, even if it’s wrong. Part of being an adult in this modern age is living far away from your parents, which can be both a blessing and, as you know, a curse.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about monitoring her expenses. She’s going to have to decide how to spend her money, especially if it’s on work that she can’t get her kinfolk to do for free. (Which, btw, could be seen as mooching — I don’t think you’re wrong or a bad daughter-in-law to tell her she has to find a professional to do work for her.)

However, you could ask her to call you whenever she’s about to make a big purchase or pay someone for work so you can discuss how much she ought to pay. Make sure she knows to do it BEFORE she pays them or has them come out. Also help her with the estimate process — if she doesn’t know how to Google how much she should pay, do it for her. You can be a help from a distance without having to give up your entire adult life to go do her yard work for her.

Hopefully this arrangement won’t hurt her pride too much. If she’s unwilling to ask your advice or help on these things, maybe you can recommend that she talk these issues over with an accountant, or even a trusted family friend. But I think if she’s willing to ask you to do her lawn or housework for her, she should be willing to accept your advice on paying someone to do it.

I think the biggest takeaway from this is that you can’t feel guilty or responsible for her decisions if she’s in her right mind and is a capable adult. If she had Alzheimer’s or another debilitating illness that kept her from being able to do her own research and make intelligent decisions, then perhaps you should feel you have to step in. But adults make bad decisions all the time, and you have to let them do it, even if they’re your mother-in-law.

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