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Financial Education for Everyone

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January 16, 2009

In many families, personal financial details aren't always shared freely, especially between generations. But if you're not familiar with your parents' financial situation, you may be doing them – and yourself – a disservice.

Even with parents currently in good health, it's wise to become familiar with their financial, medical and legal recordkeeping so you'll be able to step in and help out if needed. You may have to walk a fine line between appearing nosey or controlling and not spotting warning signals that something may be amiss.

When you visit your folks, keep an eye out for:

  • Unpaid bills, late payment notices or utility shut-off warnings.
  • Hints they sometimes must choose between filling prescriptions and buying food, heating or other necessities.
  • An overabundance of junk mail, unlikely magazine subscriptions or cheap prizes, which could indicate they may be targets for aggressive telemarketers or get-rich-quick schemes.
  • Unnecessary "home improvements" that may indicate they've fallen prey to con artists. Or conversely, signs that they can't afford needed repairs.
  • Signs of overspending or other indicators they&339;re living beyond their means.
  • Uncharacteristic secretiveness or defensiveness, possibly indicating they're embarrassed about money problems or afraid their independence would be at risk if they confide in you.

Don't be afraid to initiate conversations about your parents' finances. While it might be awkward at first, you may in fact put their minds at ease by showing that you're looking out for their best interests. A good way to raise the subject is to ask their advice about your own situation. For example, bring up concerns about your own retirement planning then ask if they have adequate savings themselves.

Organize. One of the biggest problems people of all ages have with their finances is getting organized. Offer to help your parents create, and periodically update, files containing:

  • Details of all major possessions and relevant paperwork (such as property deeds, car registration, jewelry, etc.)
  • Outstanding debts (mortgage documents, car loan papers, medical bills, etc.)
  • All income sources, including Social Security, pension, 401(k), IRA, and personal savings.
  • Bank accounts, credit cards, safe deposit box and insurance policies, including password, agent and beneficiary information.
  • Will, trust, power of attorney, health care proxy and other documents showing how they want their affairs handled. AARP's website (www.aarp.org/families/legal_issues) is a rich source of information about these and other legal issues facing seniors.
  • Past income tax returns, and accountant or financial advisor contact information.

Budget. Chances are, your parents' medical, insurance, food and other inflation-impacted bills have risen faster than their income – and recent stock market downturns certainly haven't helped. Your parents need to know exactly how much money is coming in every month and how much is going out. If they don't already have a detailed budget, offer to help create one.

For tips on creating a budget, visit Practical Money Skills for Life, Visa Inc.'s free personal financial management site (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/budgeting). It features My Budget Planner, a comprehensive interactive calculator, as well as many other budgeting tools and tips.

Consult an expert. A financial planner can help you and your parents understand the many tax, income and expense implications of retirement. If they don't already have a planner, www.plannersearch.org is a good place to start your search.

Take care of these financial planning details now, so that when your parents need your help, you’ll be able to give them your full attention.


This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.