How to cope with financially unstable parents


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How old were you when you realized your parents struggled with money?

I was five: crouched on the top stair, listening once again to my parents fighting downstairs. My mom wanted to know where all my dad’s money went each month. The math just wasn’t adding up. My dad, knowing his daughter was an eavesdropper, shouted for me to join them in the kitchen.

“Tell your mother I always provide for you,” he demanded.

I didn’t even understand the question at the time.

What I would come to understand by high school was that my dad, though light-hearted and charming, was a serial debtor. He’d go from business executive to blue-collar worker at age 65. My mom, though entrepreneurial and scrappy, struggled to find a focus. She’d go from one gig to the next, but few of them lasted.

By the time I was 24, my income surpassed both of my parents. It was clear, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that they could use my help. I felt both grateful and bitter about providing it.

This dynamic flies in the face of Westernized portrayals of “healthy” parent-child relationships. But it’s not uncommon. In the United States alone, 1.4 million adults under 35 supported their parents in 2016.

If you’ve found your way here, you can probably relate, and are wondering where to begin.

Begin here. This article is dedicated to building the emotional awareness needed to make peace with this role-reversal. In part two of this series, we’ll get into tactical options for helping your parents based on your means and risk-tolerance.

The Emotional Triangle

I’ve talked with dozens of adults who grew up with, or still coexist, with financially unstable parents. There’s three feelings that routinely come up in those conversations: fear, guilt, and resentment.

I mention these three not as criteria or “trauma benchmarks,” but to make a larger point: only when we can access, sit with, and name our feelings, can we begin to manage them. You may resonate with what I describe below and graft your own experience onto those words. You may choose to further explore your experience and select your own words.


My first chapter of financial security coincided with my parents’ divorce. My mom was forced out of a home she did not want to leave, but could not afford on her own. I feared for her well-being and safety.

When I look back, it’s clear that so many of my career ambitions were shaped by the fear that one day my parents would run out of means to care for themselves, and someone would have to step in.


Up until my parents divorce, I had been shuttling my extra income towards settling my own debts, repairing my credit, and building a safety-net of my own.

But I had also seen the sacrifices my mom made for me over the years, often at the cost of her own needs and security. It only felt right to return the favor.

I put my own financial goals on pause and re-allocated funds to help my mom with the mortgage and groceries. No one wants to see a person they love struggle, especially when that person is the reason for your existence. But I also felt resentful.


While many of my peers still relied on their parents to underwrite their leases and help with rent, I was calculating whether my income could qualify my mom for a comfortable apartment of her own.

I was jealous that my friends could spend their whole lives, and paychecks, on themselves, and not think twice about their parents’ security.

Some people, particularly those who grew up as the children of immigrants and were acquainted with the idea of sending money to their family, understood. Other people saw me helping my mom as a breach in the parenthood contract, and told me it was “deeply unfair.”

The reality is that life is unfair.

There will be times when life sits you down and reminds you that you are not entitled to the cards you want. You do, however, get to choose how you play your hand. So let’s talk about how to decide that.

Should you financially support your parents?

We’re tortured by this question because it asks us to weigh our own self-interest against our empathy for others. Like most questions in life, there is no right answer. The right answer is the one you can make peace with. Before you answer the big, hairy, “Should I help my parents?” question, I encourage you to answer two preliminary questions:

Can I afford to?

Your life is, first and foremost, your own. If you’re financially struggling yourself, covering your own bases must take priority.

I wouldn’t have been able to help my mom had I not first worked to settle my own debtsrepair my credit score, and pick up short-term side gigs to build some savings.

It can feel selfish. It can be brutal to set that boundary. But you can do so with candor and kindness. It can be as straightforward as telling your parents: “I know you’re struggling right now. I want to help because I love you. But in order to help, I need to handle some things on my end first. Can we check in in X months?”

You can’t control how your parents react to this boundary. Some will be disappointed. Some will immediately understand and, with this new information, find other options. Either way, you’ve taken ownership of your own needs, and communicated them clearly.

As Prentis Hemphill once said, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” As you begin to internalize those words, this is also a helpful visual to hold onto:

Outside your control

Does helping my parents align with my values?

A large source of our suffering comes from living with unclear values.

We may want to live one way, but make choices in service to something else: be it a higher priority or a desire to avoid discomfort.

I’ve learned through years of therapy that getting clear on your values, and their priority, provides a clear framework for our relationships.

I’ve also realized that the most useful values are phrased as verbs, not nouns.

Family” is too broad of a value to offer any actionable guidance.

Consistently supporting my mom,”(which is one of my refined values)provides clear direction for behavior, while still leaving flexibility for how I might fulfill it.

There’s been chapters in my life where supporting my mom looked like calling her every Sunday and letting her know I was thinking of her. At other times, it looked like sending her money for housing and food. The latter version was far more uncomfortable, but the discomfort of it was mitigated by my desire to embody my values.

In other words, getting clear on your values softens the edge of resentment.

You’ll likely have different values for different domains of your life. A value for your friendships may not make sense for your romantic relationships, or your relationship with your parents.

In an ideal world, you can fulfill your various values in tandem. But oftentimes, your personal values may conflict with your family values. If that’s the case, I encourage you to rank your values in order of priority, own that prioritization, or consider refining your values so that they can coexist and be fulfilled alongside each other.

Recommended Resources

Figuring this stuff out takes time and honesty. This book, particularly chapters 11-13, is a useful guide. If more support is necessary, I would encourage you to find an affordable therapist that specializes in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which builds on the value development framework I outline above.

Once you’ve taken the time to get honest with yourself about your own finances and values, you’ll be better equipped to help your parents. If, after reading this article, you feel ready and willing to offer financial support for your folks, check out part two of this series for strategic ways to help.

More lifestyle tips

You can enjoy life without spending a lot of money. Learn how to have a frugal, fulfilling, and fun life and avoid falling victim to lifestyle creep.

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Personal finance tips to employ today for a better tomorrow


Nothing gets the adrenaline going like talking about, wait for it, personal finance tips! What a great discussion topic, especially for the holidays. Second only to talking politics.


Sarcasm aside… talking personal finances should be more commonplace. Maybe less of us would be in credit card debt, or using low interest savings accounts, or not investing at all, if we just opened up and talked finances once in awhile.


So I’ll start by doing my part and sharing my top 14 personal finance tips that everyone should act on today! These are the best personal finance tips out there and should be checked off by beginners and experts alike.


Here are the categories of personal finance tips that we’ll walk through, in order of what you should be tackling first:

  • Budget better and set a baseline
  • Save more money (and save better!)
  • Make More Money
  • Make your money work for you (a.k.a. investing)




Budget better and set a baseline.


Your net worth is arguably the most important financial metric for you to measure every month (or every 3 months or so). It’s your financial pulse and shows how healthy your financial situation is at any given time (and over time).

Yet, for some reason, we’re more interested in Bill Gate’s net worth than our own!

Well, that reason is his net worth is an astronomical number that’s fun to try and guess ($110 billion if you want to quiz a friend).


While guessing other’s net worth is fun, it won’t improve your financial situation. The only way to do that is to take stock of where you stand and determine your net worth today. Then, move onto tip #2!


You can learn how to calculate your net worth and get our free net worth tracking tool here.



SARINYAPINNGAM / istockphoto


Building a budget is no fun. I’ll admit it.


Though, it does have a ton of benefits. Mainly, the ability to save you money through:

  • Providing financial clarity
  • Giving your money a purpose
  • Stopping frivolous spending
  • Helping to prioritize saving

If you need to get a better grip on your money, you can learn how to build a budget from scratch here.


Building a budget is not for everyone. For some, it puts unnecessary restraints on spending, but if you’re seeking any of the benefits above then I’d consider giving budgeting a shot.




A budget is only as good as the person managing it.


Luckily, you don’t have to keep track of it yourself!


I mean, you can if you want. I love a spread sheet as much as the next person, but I also have the whereabouts to understand that most sane humans don’t love spreadsheets and numbers as much as me.


Weird, I know.


Anyway, here are some great tools I found to help you track your spending over time:


Before moving on any further down the checklist of personal finance advice, it’d be smart to check your credit score. You can do so easily and for free at Credit Sesame.


If you’re net worth is the most important financial metric to check, your credit score comes in at a close second place. There are a lot of benefits associated with having a good credit score, including:

  • Access to excellent credit cards
  • Lower interest rates on loans
  • Higher credit limits
  • And much more

Knowing where your credit score stands is the first step to take in order to improve it (or to celebrate if you already have a good score!).


The easiest way to start saving money is to cut back on expenses. The key here is you aren’t completely cutting out expenses, you’re cutting back on them.


In other words, you’re negotiating better prices on goods and services you already use. Here are a few great resources to help you get started:


BillShark negotiates lower prices on your monthly bills, saving you time, money, and hassle. They have an 85% success rate negotiating bills for cable TV, wireless phones, satellite TV, internet access, satellite radio, and home security.


The best part: it costs you nothing! They get paid by taking a portion of the savings they get for you. If there are no savings, then they don’t get paid. It’s a win-win.

Plus, they calculate your potential savings in less than 15 seconds. If you want to give them a shot, you can get started with BillShark here.


Gabi is a full-service, online advisor who compares all of your home and car insurance options to find you the right policy, all in under two minutes. There is no need to spend hours shopping around yourself, Gabi does the work for you.


Read our full Gabi Insurance Review.

Arcadia Power

Arcadia Power was created to give everyone a simple, free way to choose renewable energy. Saving you money and helping the planet at the same time.


Learn more about if Arcadia Power is available where you live here.


Hack your location: Another great way to save money is through geoarbitrage.


After cutting back on expenses, it’s time to cut out expenses.


This includes cutting out things like unused subscriptions and any purchases you don’t value.


You could enlist the help of Trim (a handy app) to track down your unused subscriptions, set spending alerts, and overall be the personal finance assistant you may be looking for. I wrote a full review on Trim if you want to learn more about their service: Trim Review.


You could also go the old fashioned route, using what you learned from the net worth and budgeting exercises to revamp your spending habits. Which would include buying only things that matter to you and add value to your life.




Now it’s time to put your savings into overdrive.


If you’re using a traditional bank account, you could be receiving an interest rate as low as 0.01%. That’s $1 for every $10,000 you have saved with the bank.


If that’s the case, your bank is stealing from you. Point blank. Anything less than a 1% interest rate in a savings account today (as of January 2020) is unacceptable.


There is a solution to low interest savings account, and they are aptly named: high yield savings accounts. Most high yield accounts are offered by online banks and they typically offer interest rates above 1% (if not even higher).


A 1% interest on $10,000 is 100x better than most traditional banks, yielding $100 every year instead of the paltry $1 return.


If you’re looking for an online savings account, CIT Bank is a great place to start, and you check their site to get their current rates. Usually, they are very competitive.


Though, they’re not the only good option out there. You can view a full list of our favorite banks here.


What’s the best way to make more money?


How about getting paid more for what you already do with no extra work on your end needed.


Asking for a raise is not easy, but it’s a great way to make more money. You have to earn it and deserve it, though. The last thing you want to do is go in guns blazing demanding more money (especially if you aren’t a top performer). That’s a great way to lose a job!


Ramit Sethi has one of the best guides out there on how to ask for a raise. I suggest you check it out!


Ah, side hustles. The core tenant behind the new millennial dream of making passive income and then watching your bank account grow exponentially while sipping cocktails on a beach somewhere.


It’s not a bad dream. Who wouldn’t want to make money while you sleep?


It’s just not as easy as it sounds. Side hustles take a lot of work. I mean a lot.


If you have the work ethic though, they can be a great way to make some meaningful income and help you reach your personal finance goals. Here are some resources to check out if interested:


mangpor_2004 / Getty


If getting paid more for your current job or taking on a whole other one are out of the picture, don’t worry, you’re not out of luck yet.


Heck, even if you’re successful in tips 9 and 10, who isn’t always looking for a few extra bucks?


Here are two great apps to help you make some small-time cash, fast:


S’more is a lockscreen rewards app that allows you to earn points in exchange for them placing ads and content on your lockscreen.


If you don’t mind the ads, it’s a great way to earn some extra money.


Mistplay will pay you to play games!


That’s it, really. Play games, earn points, and then redeem them for gift cards and other monetary prizes!


sorrapong / istockphoto


Wait a minute, we’re in the make more money section still, right?


Yes, because credit cards are good for making money too! The sign-up bonuses, cash back, and rewards that credit cards offer can be a great source of income. Especially if you are using the best card for you.


Don’t leave money on the table by using the wrong credit card that under-rewards you. Here are some resources to help you find the right card that will offer you the best rewards based on your recent spending habits:


Farknot_Architect / istockphoto


Make your money work for you (a.k.a. investing)

The last level of personal finance tips is to put your money to work! Most finance experts agree, there is no better way to do that than to invest it.


With the stock market returning 7% on average every year, here’s what a $1,000 investment could look like after 40 years:

Personal Finance Tips on Investing

A roughly $14,000 ending value! Sign me up.


Investing is a crucial part of a wealth building strategy, and one of our most important personal finance tips. Here are some of the best resources to learn more about investing and how to set up your own long-term investing plan:




Betterment is one of the most well-known robo-advisors, and for good reason. Investing with Betterment is easy – they are an established, modern robo-advisor that features an extremely easy-to-use platform.


At a high level, Betterment features:

  • Best in class fees / expenses:
    • 0.25% management fee ($25 for every $10,000 invested)
    • Expenses ratios as low as 0.03% on ETFs (and as high as 0.25%)
  • A wide variety of ETFs available
  • An easy to use online platform

Not to mention, getting started with Betterment is easy, and we walk through exactly how to open an account. They’re a great option for beginners or anyone who wants to take a very hands off approach when it comes to investing.


If you want to learn more about Betterment before getting started, just read our full review here.




Your 401(k) is one of the most important investment accounts that you utilize. So why do so many of us sign up on day one of work to contribute some small percentage to it, and then never look at it again?


Honestly, it’s probably because it’s boring. We all have better things we could be doing that don’t involve planning for retirement and choosing between 401(k) account types.

That’s where Blooom comes into play. Blooom is a 401(k) robo-advisor that offers both:

  • A Free 401(k) Health Check Up: Blooom can hook up to your 401(k) to review your account and provide recommendations on how to optimize your investments.
  • Paid Ongoing 401(k) Management: Blooom offers ongoing 401(k) management, so you can take a more hands off approach and let them take the wheel.

You can learn more about Blooom in the full review we wrote here.

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Featured Image Credit: DimaBerkut / istockphoto.