The decision to get out of debt was a no-brainer for me. I’d been in the hole for nearly a year and, at the age of 28, I was well aware that I’d need to start saving money for bigger expenses later on. You know, things like a mortgage, a car and a more mature lifestyle. My shoebox-sized apartment in New York’s Morningside Heights just wasn’t cutting it. And after starting a job as a personal finance editor for TheStreet — the financial website headquartered on Wall Street — I was beginning to have more introspective “man in the mirror” moments than I cared for.
Nearly every story that passed through my desk dealt with debt in one way or another. The usual culprit was credit cards and the recession; mine was learning to live on a budget and accept my less-than-glamorous lifestyle. Typically, I covered budgeting and the intersection of lifestyle and money, but it wasn’t long before I got interested in boomers and retirement, particularly with regards to women.
A few months into the job, I was reporting on what a second marriage does to your money. It seemed boring at first, but the statistics I dug up — with help from financial planners, sociologists and attorneys — were anything but dull: 67 percent of second marriages end in divorce, for starters, and people in their 50s and 60s account for most of the breakups. That seemed like a terrible age to be left alone to pick up the pieces, but being a woman made things even harder — and that scared me.
Women tend to live longer than men, so they face greater health care costs and challenges to making their money last. Because they often assume the role of caregiver and are in and out of the workforce, it's harder for them to save regularly. Beyond that, the wage gap persists, with women earning about 75 percent of what men do.
With all these facts swirling around in my head, it was hard not to think of my twice-married, 59-year-old mother when I wrote my last check to pay off my credit bill.
Mom Avoids Having 'The Talk'
My mother, who lives in Houston, where I grew up, was a bit of a spendthrift. My younger sister and I loved her for it. There were many days after school when she’d surprise us with little trinkets she’d bought at a local gift shop. We’d then spend the rest of the afternoon recapping the day’s events over creamy vanilla milkshakes. My father, a sharp-witted attorney, was always chastening her. “You bought what?” he’d snap. “What do you think I’m made of, money?”
When they split up around my 13th birthday and she went to work full-time, it wasn’t hard to see where their views had differed. My father had always saved prudently — he has held onto every tax return since 1977 — but it was clear my mother had not. A brush with illness left her saddled with medical debt. Her purse was forever bulging with crumpled receipts from salons and restaurants.
At 29, I finally got up the nerve to ask her about retirement. “I’ll get Social Security,” she sweetly replied, as if to say this was an open-and-shut case. But I was determined, if not a tad desperate, to know where her finances stood.
“Mom, we have to talk about your plans for the future,” I’d begin.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she’d say, dodging the subject. “I’ll get Social Security. Don’t worry.”
But it’s hard not to fret when you hear statistics like this: The 2012 New Retirement Mindscape City Pulse index by Ameriprise Financial found only 44 percent of female respondents say they’ve contributed to a workplace retirement plan, compared with 51 percent of male respondents. Worse still, 10 percent fewer women have set aside money in their own investments (42 percent vs. 52 percent for men). Also, only 1 in 5 women (19 percent) have determined the amount of income they’ll need in retirement, compared with 28 percent of men.
Getting Mom to Take the First Step
So if Mom wouldn’t come clean, I’d need a different approach. I turned to Suzanne De Baca, vice president of wealth management strategies at Ameriprise Financial and an expert on women’s retirement. If anyone could help, it was she, I reasoned. Sure enough, she said I wasn’t alone.
Boomer women like to say, “I’ll be fine” because they don’t want to feel like a burden or look insecure, De Baca explained, noting my mother fits this description. It hurts to know you could put your loved ones in jeopardy, so they often wind up in denial and put off making plans altogether. Bingo! This is just what I had feared.
Thankfully, my mother, a speech pathologist who works for public schools, might have more options than she realizes. There may be a 403(b) education pension she can tap into or the option to work through retirement. Neither are ideal, stand-alone plans, but they are places where she can start.
As for me, De Baca suggested I take a more positive tact to engage Mom — to make the conversation less of a burden. Rather than me accusing her of being evasive or making this about my retirement, I could cite a financial news article. I could then ask Mom for her opinion. Nowadays, I’ll say things like, “So, how about winning the $60 million lotto?” Then she offers her thoughts on managing the windfall.
On a recent trip to Houston, over hamburgers and vanilla milkshakes, I went a step further. I asked if she’d thought of retirement now that she was nearing the big 6-0. “You know, I think I’ll probably keep working,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t think I’ve saved quite enough.”
At least she could finally say it this time. Perhaps I can finally help.