Planning for My Parents’ Retirement

Photo credit: Rojer, CC BY 2.0.

My family was barely lower-middle-class, but I still grew up in a stable household where I had everything I needed. My parents, who immigrated to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War in the ’80s, prioritized my sister and me above everything else. They made sure that if nothing else was certain, we would never go hungry or worry about where we would live—and as we got older, that nothing would keep us from going to the best school district that they could send us to. Instead of investing in themselves, they invested in us and our futures.

Now, in our late twenties, my sister and I are facing my parents’ retirement. They’re in the same boat as many other Americans their age—working past retirement age, hoping to be healthy enough to work until 70 to retire and collect the maximum Social Security payout in return for not retiring earlier. This means they’ll probably retire in three years. As a hard-working parent herself, my sister lives close to my family and can be there in case they need anything, but since she has children to support and prioritize first, I don’t anticipate financially supporting my parents with her anytime soon.

When I started my full-time career a few years ago, I immediately began saving for retirement with the goal to have enough for the day I would stop working, either by choice or by circumstance. As I plan for my own early retirement, I’m also preparing for my parents to retire. Retirement guides ask readers to estimate their cost of living and other abstract questions about their lives decades in the future, but those questions stop being abstract when I apply them to my parents’ lives as they prepare to stop working, especially in a time where Medicaid and Medicare are becoming less and less guaranteed.

Where will they live?

My parents live in the house my sister and I grew up in as teenagers—the cheapest house in a good and expensive school district. It has three little floors and is packed with our childhood memorabilia, school papers, and books. The soupy and breathtakingly humid summers fill the house with flies and mosquitoes, and the torrential winter snows require us to shovel a path out of our house as soon as we open the door (only to misstep and slide down the secret ice layer we exposed after clearing the snow).

Going down in the basement, I can see the half-finished flooring that my dad, whom I call Apa, worked on incrementally over the last 15 years on his days off. The drywall and insulation are set up the right way, and the ancient washer and dryer hum in the corner. It’s going to make a good spare bedroom when my apa has time to finish it.

Walking into the backyard, I smell the freshly mowed grass, pick the fragrant herbs my mom grows with care and appreciate the yard work that they do like clockwork every week. Though my parents are getting older, their home is always kept in order inside and out. They live only 45 minutes from my sister and her kids, and ten minutes from most of my aunts and uncles. They don’t want to leave their home, and we don’t want them to have to leave, even if they have to deal with stairs and snow in their golden years.

What does their monthly budget look like?

When my parents stop working, they’ll depend almost completely on their combined Social Security payments, which is enough to pay either the mortgage or their bills and groceries. When they retire, I’ll be in my early thirties. My financial future is a little hazier than my parents’, but perhaps I’ll be looking for my own home to buy, figuring out how to combine finances with my partner, paying off the last of my student loans, and setting aside a small college nest egg for my niece.

What happens when or if they become ill?

My grandmother, who’s in her late eighties, developed dementia within the last few years. Seeing my mom and aunts attempt to balance caring for their suddenly ailing parent with other obligations gave me a glimpse into what my life might look like in a decade or two. It helped me realize that money is only one resource to help you take care of someone you love; showing up to spend time with them, especially in difficult times, matters much more.

I’m lucky that my job allows me to work remotely. Because of that perk, I can fly home on short notice to spend time with my grandmother or parents without having to negotiate with a boss for time off, or even have to explain that I’m caring for a family member. It’s also taught me that being able to work remotely is a non-negotiable facet of any future job I would pursue. This closes off a lot of possible career paths, but it’s helped me figure out what I need from a job to live the life I want—rather than molding my life around whatever a job needs from me.

What do I want parts of their life to look like?

I don’t want my parents to worry about bills they can’t pay once they don’t have an income. I don’t want them to tap into their hard-earned savings in order to pay their mortgage, since those savings need to last the rest of their lives. I want their Social Security to be used however they want. They need to maintain their cars to get around the suburbs, they need their independence, and they need time to relax after at least forty years of work.

When I ask them about their ideal retirement, it includes spending time with extended family, cooking good food and having free time to pursue hobbies. I’m hoping they can spend their own budget on regular expenses and things that bring them joy, with the occasional splurge or vacation.

How does it change my life to plan for more than one retirement?

As long as they are alive, I want my parents to be comfortable. Though I’m planning for my own financial independence, I’ve also made contributing to my parents’ retirement expenses a priority. But what does that look like as a monthly amount? How can we give money to our parents in a dignified and frictionless way? What is a sustainable amount for us to give, keeping in mind other financial and life goals? Should we also save a “parental emergency fund” for emergencies that neither can weather without going into debt?

Though I wonder what supporting my parents’ retirement through the next few decades entails, I take comfort in the fact that, because of their love and support, I’m now in a position where I can support whatever they want to do next. Thinking about their retirement has also helped me make clear-eyed decisions about what I want my future to look like after I stop working. That comfort is worth a lot more than a line item in my budget.

Elite Truong is a product manager, travel writer and the host of a podcast about career changes in media. Find her on Twitter @elitetruong.

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