Dear Penny: How Do I Tell Mom I’m Worried About Her Retirement Plans?

An older woman goes hiking with her daughter.
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Dear Penny,

I recently spent time with my mother, who is 67 and is planning on going into semi-retirement soon. I asked her about her financial plans for retirement and what she told me has me feeling concerned. 

She has three retirement accounts: a pension that gives her about $100 a month, a 401(k) from a job she hasn’t worked at in over a decade and another 401(k) from her current employer. She didn’t know the balance of the inactive 401(k), but she could tell me that she has about $40,000 in the active 401(k). That’s the extent of what she knows about her 401(k)s.

Fortunately, she owns her house outright and doesn’t have a lot of debt, and she has a healthy savings account that’s got more than $10,000 in it.

Even so, I worry that she’s going to enter semi-retirement and quickly discover that she doesn’t have nearly enough saved up to take care of herself, let alone her husband or my adult half-brother, both of whom have disabilities and are not able to work. I’m not really in a position to be able to help her out should that happen.

I want to help her figure out how to make the most of what she’s got, but I’m not sure where to start. Also, I worry that I might seem like I’m overstepping my boundaries as her daughter, but at the same time, if she doesn’t start taking steps now, I worry she’s going to be in a very hard situation when she decides to step back from her job. 

-Mothering My Mother

Dear Mothering,

You’re not overstepping your boundaries by talking to your mother about her retirement plans. Having these sometimes awkward conversations with your parents is an act of love. But approaching these talks is tricky because, as your signature implies, you’re taking on a parent-like role.

Suppose the situation were reversed and your mother was worried about your finances. How would you want her to broach this topic?

You wouldn’t want to be ambushed; you’d want a head’s-up that a serious talk is coming. So be direct. Tell your mom you’re worried about her retirement plans and ask when she can set aside time to talk.

As part of the pre-conversation, you might give her a gentle nudge by asking if she’s made any progress on locating her old 401(k). The simplest way for her to do that is to contact her old employer, provided that they’re still around. Otherwise, she can search for her 401(k) funds by creating an account through the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, www.unclaimedretirementbenefits

When you actually do have The Talk, try not to hit her with a diatribe about what she should and shouldn’t be doing. Instead, start by asking questions. Is she confident that she’s ready for semi-retirement? Does she have an estimate for how much she’ll need to survive in retirement? 

If she has concerns, hopefully, she’ll open up about them and you can devise a plan to help. Otherwise, be prepared to make the case for why you’re concerned.

As for how to help your mother make the most of her retirement savings, there’s really no hard-and-fast rule. Both the IRS and the company that sponsors a 401(k) have a host of complicated rules about what you can do with your retirement money.

While you may be able to help your mom better understand her options, you’ll need to respect the fact that these are her decisions to make.

If you know you’re not in a position to help your mother financially, communicate that. But also remember that helping a retired parent doesn’t necessarily mean supporting them for the rest of their lives. 

For example, if you have a little wiggle room in your budget and you’re concerned about whether your mom could withstand an emergency expense, you could open a savings account and set aside $100 a month you could use to help her out if needed.

Just realize that where your mother is at is the product of nearly five decades’ worth of financial decisions and life circumstances she’s faced in her adult life. You can’t reverse all that. But by starting an open dialogue about money now, you can help her navigate the challenges ahead.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about difficult money conversations to [email protected]