Dear Penny: Is It Weird That My Mom Still Spies on My Bank Account?

A woman wears a tan coat while using binoculars. She's hiding behind a bush in her front yard.
Getty Images
Dear Penny,

I will be 30 in July and still live with my parents, mainly because I have mild cerebral palsy affecting my left side. It makes driving a little difficult, but not entirely impossible.

My biggest concern involving money is: Is there anything legal that says I have to make my parents beneficiaries if something were to happen to me? My mother insists that her name be on all of my bank accounts. (She had to be when I first got my checking account because I was a minor but never took her name off when I became 18.) 

She loves to spy on me and see how I'm spending my money. If she sees something she doesn't like, she chews me out over it despite the fact that all of my bills are paid on time. She refuses to let me get my own cell phone plan because all three of us (me, her and my dad) are required to have phones that use the same type of charger in case it's forgotten on trips. 

In 2018, she tried to get me on disability because I was not going with my parents on their 30th wedding anniversary trip overseas. She was so worried something would happen that she demanded wills for her and my dad be done before leaving. Thankfully, my doctor refused to sign off on the disability. What should I do?


Dear B.,

Your mother seems to have created a narrative that you’re not capable of taking care of yourself. And it’s a false narrative. You’re a rational, responsible adult.

I wish I could tell you to close this bank account and open a new one without your mother’s name attached. This should be a non-event for a 29-year-old. But I’m guessing this would be a very big deal in your household.

Dear Penny

Ask Dear Penny!

Get practical money advice from Dana Miranda, the voice of Dear Penny and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance.

DISCLAIMER: Questions will appear in The Penny Hoarder’s “Dear Penny” column. We are unable to answer every letter. We reserve the right to edit and publish your questions. But don’t worry — your identity will remain anonymous.

To answer your first question, no, you’re not obligated to make your parents the beneficiary of your bank accounts. You can make anyone — another family member, a friend, a significant other, a charity — your beneficiary. All you have to do is fill out something called a transfer upon death form with your bank.

However, it sounds like you have a joint bank account with your mother. With a joint account, anyone listed as a co-owner can withdraw the balance at any time. That’s a real concern, given the amount of control your mother exerts over you.

Which brings me to your broader question: What should you do?

You’re in a bad relationship, only it’s with your parents, not a partner. You handle this by doing what may be the scariest, hardest thing you’ve ever had to do: You start making your exit plan.

You say your main reason for living with your parents is that driving is difficult. That’s a challenge, but it isn’t an insurmountable one. Plenty of people don’t drive, yet still live independently. Given the explosion in remote jobs, you have more options than ever for supporting yourself without regular transportation.

Obviously, you’ll need to save money to move out on your own. That’s going to be a real challenge, given your mother’s propensity for spying.

If you feel safe doing so, you could be honest and tell your parents, “I’m almost 30, so it’s time for me to start saving for my own place.”

But if you’re financially dependent on your parents, tread cautiously. If you think your mother would make life harder for you, I think it would be best to keep your joint bank account open and try to save money in a different account.

Try to think of some ways that you could save money without your parents’ knowledge. Could you get cash back when you make purchases using your debit card? Or make relatively minor purchases, then return them and ask for the refund in cash? Or could you open an online bank account and divert a small portion of your paycheck there? Perhaps you could tell your mother that you’re saving money in a retirement account.

If you have someone you trust, like a close friend or family member, let them know what’s happening. Maybe they could let you stay with them while you’re establishing yourself or support you in some other way. At the very least, they can provide you with a much-needed listening ear.

It sounds like you’ve been told for a long time that you’re not a competent adult. Now it’s up to you to change this narrative. If you don’t start asserting your independence, nothing in this situation will change.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].