Welcome to Ask the Bills, in which Helaine Olen answers readers’ questions about their most nagging personal finance and financial etiquette dilemmas. Seeking advice on a money issue? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband and I are in our late 30s. All four of our parents were well-supported by their parents, including help with college, first homes, and child care. Our grandparents also left our parents enough money to retire before age 65 and buy second homes in faraway climes. Unfortunately, they’ve taken their increases in wealth as evidence that we are somehow less responsible than they are. They’re in total denial that it’s our grandparents’ money—people who worked all day long on the family farm and never vacationed, much less bought a beach house—that has allowed them to stop working. By most measures, our choices have been more sound than theirs. We delayed marriage, delayed childbearing, and both completed our college degrees. (Not all four of our parents did that.) But we’ve faced many more obstacles. Our college educations cost more, and our day care expenses will total nearly $80,000 once we’re done with them. And we were forced to sell our first house—which we bought with savings we both built for years before our marriage—for less than we hoped when a better job opportunity in another city came up. Almost 10 years later, we still haven’t fully recovered. Yet my parents and in-laws are really committed to the story that they are enjoying the bounty of years of hard work, so much so that they tell us our family is in worse financial shape because my husband and I are irresponsible with money and that we shouldn’t spend it on anything fun. They constantly criticize any money they see us spend, down to a doughnut. That’s exacerbated by the fact that the only time we see them is when we are on vacation and thus would like to be having fun. Frankly, it would be great if they were as generous with us as our grandparents were with them, but that’s never been the case. How can I get them to stop treating me like a dingbat with a bank account?
People who came of age in the period between the end of World War II and the early 1980s benefited from one of the greatest periods of economic mobility in U.S. history. It seems like your parents and grandparents were part of this economic leap. You and your husband, however, did not benefit to the same extent. Yes, it sounds like you were raised in more middle-class comfort than your own mom and dad, but you missed out on a lot, too, like inheriting money from family members who lived frugally because they remembered the Great Depression in bone-jarring detail and raising children with the benefit of relatives who live nearby and have the free time and inclination to offer up no-cost babysitting. You came of age in a different world. According to Sentier Research, median household income is still below where it was in 2000. At the same time—to pick one stat that just happens to impact you personally—the cost of child care has been running double that of inflation since 2009. The expense of education, health care, and housing has also outpaced our incomes and the overall consumer price index.
You clearly get this—but it’s not how your parents view the world. It’s too human to forget the help we received while recalling our struggles and setbacks. Put another way, lots of us—lots of us—confuse luck with smarts. And here in the United States, we’re in particular denial about how systemic forces impact us. We enjoy significantly less economic mobility than many European countries, but when surveyors ask, we’re much more likely than our old-world peers to believe our hard work can take us far. This is no doubt compounded by an outsized presence of financial scolds in our culture, people who blame our money woes not on the greater economy we all inhabit but on our occasional splurges on lattes, luxury goods, or doughnuts.
The “vacations” you describe sound more like duty visits to parents who nitpick, criticize, judge, and are otherwise less than supportive. I suspect you are not ever going to fully solve this one, but the next time the subject does come up, you might want to say something like, “We are doing the best we can, given that the government says expenses for childcare are going up at twice the rate of inflation. Despite that, we’ve managed to save up our own money to buy a home, and we did it with no help from anyone else. You no longer live near us, and we don’t see you that often. Instead of disagreeing on money management, why don’t we discuss something more pleasant?”
And then, next time you need to get away,…