How Money Moves Between Generations (Not The Way You Expect)

Help! cries a writer in Dame Magazine. I’ve Become My Mother’s Sugar Mama!

My mother has always had a tenuous grasp of money, and its meaning; when her father died in 1967, leaving her a small amount of cash and a handful of now-priceless tenement buildings all over Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she bought five fur coats in less than a year. Furious at my stepfather for some minor infraction nearly 30 years later, she met me at Tiffany one rainy Saturday afternoon ostensibly to have a sterling-silver pill case repaired, but in fact to order the expensive engraved social stationary that she suddenly could not possibly exist without, paying the $1,500 bill with his credit card. Coming out of one of her doctors’ offices on the Upper East Side, she stopped at a stand selling $100 knock-offs of $2,000 purses and bought two — one for me; one for her — fake Goyard totebags from a Liberian who was eager to show her how good his copies were.

Oh dear. Somehow I feel like this mother-daughter story is not going to have a happy ending.

She once bought 22 bottles of Clinique nail polish because she was certain they were going to discontinue her favorite color, even as she was living on a steady diet of egg whites and canned tuna procured from her local CVS. Having impetuously quit her medical receptionist job on Fifth Avenue a few years after my stepfather died, and with no other income beside Social Security and the meager interest she earns, she began to dip into principle [sic] whenever an urgent whim struck, like the abrupt, overwhelming need to install new light fixtures in her rental apartment kitchen because, she said, she couldn’t possibly bear the old ones anymore. “Do you think your mother understands the difference between principal and interest?” my wife asked, “or does she expect us to support her, or to live with us when the money’s all gone because she needs new light fixtures, or runs out of nail polish?”

Whew, that’s grim. The mother never learned how to deal with money and yet is used to spending it. At nearly 80, since she has run through her own cash, she thinks it’s fair to spend her daughter’s. Meanwhile the daughter keeps cycling through the five stages of parent-child related grief: denial, resentment, anger, guilt, giving in. These two are so dysfunctional they should have their own reality show.

This article reminded me of a different but related family-and-money question that arose last Friday in the weekly Carolyn Hax advice chat: How Do I Ask My In-Laws to Put Us on a Budget? The husband who wrote in was grateful that his in-laws give them money from time to time but frustrated that their random, sizeable gifts enable his wife’s terrible spending habits. She’s in the same boat, essentially, as the mother from the Dame magazine article: as long as she knows someone will bail her out, she never has to do the hard work of becoming financially responsible.

Carolyn’s advice is, of course, impeccable: “I’m sorry, you can’t ask your in-laws to solve your marital problem for you.” Especially when the in-laws helped create the problem in the first place and probably enjoy undermining the husband a little bit by making sure their spendy daughter still has to rely on them. Devious!

To what degree is your family your financial responsibility, no matter what? And what do you do when the people you feel you have to give money to handle it badly?

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