VanderToolen says the choices seniors make about helping family members remind him of the safety instructions on an airplane. The flight attendants tell the passengers that if an emergency causes the oxygen masks to drop down from the ceiling, people should first put on their own masks before helping children and others around them.
"So often these individuals decide to help someone else before themselves," VanderToolen says. "In other words, they are trying to make sure everyone else has their oxygen mask — but they don't realize their seat belt is undone and they are starving for oxygen because they don't have their own mask on."
In some of her speaking engagements, Ulrich has tried scaring younger people from relying too much on their parents' financing. "Picture yourself with your own family," she tells them. "Do you want your mother knocking on your door begging for a place to stay? Do you want her calling you up and telling you she is going to lose her house because she mortgaged the heck out of it to pay for your school?"
In Karamcheva's analysis for the Urban Institute, she noticed the leverage ratios of older Americans were rising. She divided household debt by total household assets. In 1998, on average, debt consumed 6 percent of total household assets. By 2010, that leverage ratio more than doubled, with debt consuming 13 percent of household assets.
Karamcheva says part of this may be due to the recession, but the trend began a decade earlier.
The bottom line is, senior Americans will likely be paying off debts well into their retirement years — putting undue stress on their finances. "This adds to the overall concern," Karamcheva says, "that these people, going forward, may have fewer resources to meet everyday needs."
There are things that can be done, however.
In his counseling work, VanderToolen tries to help seniors identify and plug their financial leaks. "It is all about understanding your income and your expenses," VanderToolen says. "The core of financial management hasn't changed in 100 years. We just have to spend less money than we earn. It's a pretty simple concept."
Ramsey pushes the same principles.
"No matter your age, it's important to live on a budget and live on less than you make," he says. "Debt is not a tool. It adds considerable risk, and when you're retired it's important to take care of the money you have worked so hard to save."
But it isn't always enough. The enticement of things to buy and the needs of loved ones are often stronger than the frugality principles that would keep seniors out of trouble.
"Finance often comes down to matters of motivation," VanderToolen says, "not necessarily financial strategy."
Connie and Kay, however, continue to try to balance love, financial responsibility and the needs of their adult children (and 15 grandchildren).
Currently, Connie has one of her adult children staying in their basement who helps out financially. "I expect her to do something," Connie says, "but not more than she is currently capable of."
"We help people who help themselves," Kay says. "We won't help people who don't help themselves."
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