The Cost of Saying No

Photo credit: Maxwell CS, CC BY 2.0.

All my life up until a few years ago, I lived at home. This was by choice; I truly enjoyed being close to my folks and friends, plus I only had to pay half of the rent and it was within commuting distance to my school and later on, my job.

I learned to be supportive of the family and meet any needs as much as I could before I ultimately got married. When my dad’s business went belly-up post-recession, it was up to my siblings and me to pitch in for rent, maintain two cars, buy groceries, maintain auto/life/home insurances, buy lunches and dinners when we went out, etc. I was always more than happy to do so because I felt like I was needed and was in a position to help.

I got engaged and married earlier this year. My wife’s mother had passed away a few years ago; my wife had set up her dad’s financial situation in a way where he could be financially self-sufficient based on his Social Security income and various random gigs. I, meanwhile, was still supporting my parents.

Although I had “warned” my parents for over a year that I would be getting married and moving out soon, and reminded them multiple times that I would not be able to provide as much financial or physical help, they were not able to support themselves on their own when I moved out. I realized that I had to take care of my new family (my wife and me) first, and that my parents needed to respect that as well as start to manage their own affairs. I had to learn to say no when they asked for help here and there.

As my parents received continuous monthly help from me before I got married, the transition was very tough on myself, my wife, and my parents for three reasons:

  1. My parents were no longer receiving monthly financial contributions from me, which stretched their finances because I prioritized building up my wife and my new life together over my parents’ situation.
  2. My wife had grievances towards me and my parents, which strained our seven-month old marriage. She felt that I “enabled” them; she had painstakingly taken the initiative to ensure her dad would be financially set without our help, and I hadn’t yet done the same for my side.
  3. My sister thought I was leaving her in the dust because she assumed that she and my brother would now have to take care of my parents all by themselves. This caused a lot of heartache.

The thing is, we never really had any serious conversations about this whole topic—it was almost as if my dad never really wanted to talk about it and in turn I had to piece things together from my mom. However, I could see the writing on the wall and I didn’t want to see them falling behind on their rent payments or something worse, like losing their roof over their heads. So I had to do something to bring it up and it went a little something like this:

Me: Mom, Dad, you guys are going to have to figure out how to pay rent and the other stuff now,  I can’t support you guys anymore like I used to.

Mom: Maybe we can figure out rent, but can you continue to pay for anything else? Like the car or insurance?

Me: *a little more frustrated* I don’t think you are hearing me, I can’t anymore. That is why you guys NEED to downsize and get OUT of this big house that only you guys live in now. With the savings, that is your car payment money and other bill money. [My wife] and [my brother] and I can help out with the moving costs, but that is it. I am so sorry, but enough is enough.

Mom: *genuinely looking hurt* Okay. We will figure something out. I am sorry to keep burdening you.

Me: Okay, Dad, what is your game plan? What are you going to do to help Mom?

Dad: *silence*

I left that conversation finding myself nearly in tears. All my life, my parents had helped me out despite whatever life situation I found myself in. Now that I was married, I couldn’t help but feel pangs of guilt wreak sorrow on my soul.

This act of saying no to my parents was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. They’re my family, but it’s more than that; it’s also because my parents’ generation prioritized their kids (us) over putting money away for their retirements, and the long-term financial consequences are becoming apparent now that the kids (us) have grown up and the parents who have worked for decades can’t work anymore. Some parents, like mine, have next to nothing coming in; my dad has a spotty work history, so his Social Security income is not fully guaranteed.

I look back on the tremendous sacrifices my parents made for us. When they had extra money that they could have put towards their retirement, they used it to fund our music lessons/sports teams/family trips. This makes it incredibly difficult for me to simply let go of that visceral feeling of wanting to support my parents in any way possible. I justified supporting my parents because they truly truly truly sacrificed for me when I was a kid. I remember thoroughly enjoying my childhood, but I am slowly understanding and paying the true costs of it years later as an adult.

I think this social phenomenon will get even worse in a few years, as I have no idea what we will do if my parents require long-term care/assisted living, which means lots of $$$ that neither I nor my wife nor any of our family has. My parents basically have no retirement savings, save a skimpy life insurance policy or two. I don’t know what my wife and I and my siblings might have to do when their health starts to deteriorate. My wife and I would like to start a family of our own someday, but that is up in the air until we get a better sense of how my parents will end up.

We’ll see how it plays out—the good news is that my sister is slowly coming around to being the “caretaker” of the household now, and hopefully my parents can pull in a job or two. I think this transition was sorely needed and I can rest a bit easier knowing that my parents are beginning to improve their situation—perhaps in part because of my wife’s and my decision to say no.

Paul Kim is a graduate student in the Central Coast of California and loves exploring new trails in his 4Runner.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Parents Month series.

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