I Love My Dad, but He’s Dead Broke. What Do I Owe the Man Who Gave Me Life?

An older construction worker stands in a dimly lit area.
South_agency/Getty Images
Dear Penny,

My father is a hard-working man. He's labored his whole 63-year life. He never saved any money for retirement. If he cashes out Social Security now, he'll still have to work to make ends meet.

He has no health insurance and hasn't been to a doctor in years. So he muscles through so much pain.

He recently lost a job because technology surpassed his skills. He got another, as he's always done, but he works in the heat all day and it's draining his already-worn-out body.

His wife and her mother live with him. His wife is disabled, and his mother-in-law has dementia.

He's never asked me for help before, but after the recent job loss, he did. And I helped him. How could I not? I'm the only one he has to lean on.

It's hard to see him in so much pain, so financially strapped, so disposable to society. He promised me he would pay me back, but I told him to consider it a Father's Day gift.

I'm worried this might keep happening. As he ages, so does technology, and it will continue to surpass him. Then, the burden will rest on me. I'm planning my future, saving for retirement and hoping to have a family soon.

When do I say no? When do I say yes? How do I help him? Should I help him? Can I deny the man who gave me life and has worked so hard to survive?


Someone's Empathetic Daughter

Dear SED,

This is the greatest fear come true for a lot of us who have aging parents, isn’t it?

About 40 million adults serve as a family caregiver in some capacity, according to an AARP study, and about 25% of those are millennials. As our parents get older, it’ll be harder to hide from the need to make tough decisions for our parents’ benefit.

But parental health issues and money troubles aren’t things you can easily bring up around the dinner table. Parents don’t want to talk to their grown children about worst-case scenarios. Asking for help is hard for the people who are so used to providing for others.

Which is why it hurts even worse when they wait to come to you until they’re really in financial trouble.

It’s time to have a long talk about money.

Call your dad and find a time to talk or meet when you won’t be bothered by others. Maybe plan for sandwiches. Tell him upfront that you want to talk about money and preparing for his future. Being upfront tells him you’re facing the problem head on, and that he should, too. If you spring it on him mid-sandwich, he’s going to feel blindsided.

But this isn’t a lecture. Think of it as a fact-finding mission. Tell your dad: “I know money’s tight, and as I’m planning for my own financial future, I want to think about yours, too.”

Then ask lots of questions.

Does he have any money in savings? Is there any money he set aside for you or your siblings a long time ago? Does he owe any debt? What are his normal bills each month? Does he have a will? What about life insurance for him, his wife or his mother-in-law? What stresses him out when he thinks about money? What does he worry about when he looks for work?

The answers probably won’t be pretty, but it’ll get you talking. This conversation isn’t a time for “I told you so” or “Why’d you do that?” comments. It’s a time to ask questions and learn. This first, terribly painful conversation will help you lay the groundwork for your financial future together, in whatever format you decide upon.

You don’t have to commit to providing monetary support. Don’t forget that your time may be just as valuable to him as he navigates this next phase of his life.

A few resources that may help as you determine next steps:

When he turns 65, your dad will be eligible for Medicare. In the meantime, his modest income may mean he’s eligible for Medicaid. Securing health insurance can take a huge burden off your family’s aching shoulders.

The CFPB’s retirement calculator can show you what benefits your father might be able to claim from Social Security at various ages. Sit down and use the calculator with him, since you said he’s not tech-savvy.

Find out where your local Area Agency on Aging is based, and what services it offers. This organization can connect your family to resources for insurance and health issues, transportation and other nearby services. It’s also a reliable source of information to help your dad avoid financial scams that target seniors.

You don’t need to concoct a grand plan to save your father’s finances right away. But by understanding as much as you can about his situation, you can determine the best way to help him, whether it comes from your budget or elsewhere.

The inbox is open. Submit a question or send your worries to [email protected], and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Disclaimer: Chosen questions and featured answers will appear in The Penny Hoarder’s “Dear Penny” column. I won’t be able to answer every single letter (I can only type so fast!). We reserve the right to edit and publish your questions. Don’t worry — your identity will remain anonymous. I don’t have a psychology, accounting, finance or legal degree, so my advice is for general informational purposes only. I do, however, promise to give you honest advice based on my own insights and real-life experiences.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.