This post is part of an editorial series, “Money Matters.”
I must start by saying that I love this set of my children’s grandparents. They are generous people who eagerly engage with their grandchildren. But their freedom of spending borders on carelessness and it is troubling.
Before our kids came along, my husband and I hesitantly accepted extravagant gestures — like a new appliance after casually mentioning shopping for one. Regularly delivered bags overflowed with clothes, power tools, and personal care items. Now, the gift-giving extends to our children. We receive carloads of unsolicited groceries and goodies — and not sensible pantry staples or fresh produce. We’re talking the types of highly processed foods (and, on several occasions, whole cakes) that we rarely eat and that regrettably go to waste.
Help That Hurts
For years, I struggled to articulate my frustration. The gifts are not useless. Many families in needier situations would accept such help without pause. But, my husband and I have means to buy what we need. We would, in fact, prefer to research large purchases and do our own shopping for household goods. We want to choose what fills our closets and pantry. The grandparents’ purchases exclude us from decisions we have a reasonable expectation to make together for our family.
In addition to stripping our buying power, the gifts place a burden of obligation on us to use them. A return would often be impossible and refusal impolite. So, I use with reluctance the trendy hair care product or as-seen-on-TV cleaning gadget. I recognize the desire motivating these gifts — that our parents want good things for their children — and I store away the lesson in practicality for when my children are grown. The cycle of compulsive purchases stops with me.
The gift-giving is only part of a larger problem for the grandparents, an outlet of habitually unchecked spending. They treat money as an ever-renewing resource to be used up as quickly as it’s earned — often on things no one needs. This lifestyle led to multiple mortgages taken out on a home too large for the empty nesters to inhabit or maintain. Various subscriptions, multiple cable and streaming entertainment services, online shopping addictions, weekly spa visits, and other treatments accumulate.
I believe they have no delusions about their situation. They sadly seem resigned to the likelihood of working until the day they die, spending freely in the meantime because there’s no way at this point of saving enough for an adequate retirement. Their spending habits suggest an attitude of enjoying life now, showering loved ones with treats of all kinds, and putting the future out of mind. This approach (of giving away liberally to others) might seem more selfless than the alternative (of storing up for oneself).
But I disagree. It is not loving us when they spend without thought for future financial needs or retirement. It is not selfless of them to give only what they assume we would want — what they believe is good for us without reference to our tastes, preferences, or actual needs. Personally, I would rather they prioritize their own needs over what they perceive as our wants.
Fortunately, my husband and I share a similar financial ethic. We don’t take out debt for anything we don’t need, and we set aside as much as we can spare for the future — either in savings or retirement funds. We plan to support our kids in some aspect through school and then one day retire, downsize our house, and live modestly at home so that we may do some traveling abroad in our golden years.
I see our parents’ habits in stark contrast to our philosophy. And I wonder what will happen when sickness, disability, or advanced years prevent them from working to support this lifestyle. I fear a legacy of debt and growing medical bills will eclipse any value in their home, should they ever be willing to sell. I am not opposed to multi-generational living arrangements when circumstances require — in fact, I welcome them as beneficial to our parents (and to us by extension). But I worry they’ll be disappointed in reduced independence, or ashamed of needing help.
Hope for a Change
My husband and I have had gentle, but pointed discussions with them about our concerns. We have tried to explore as a family what it might look like for them to be on the right track to sell their home, retire in a reasonable timeframe, and enjoy financial independence. We have offered our emotional and practical support to help them reach these goals. We have laid a few absolute boundaries when it comes to gifts for us and the children. And although things have improved somewhat, no amount of talk can alter who they are.
As my oldest child grows, I realize how powerless I am to make her do anything. I can encourage good choices and allow her to suffer consequences of poor decisions. But I can’t force her to behave any way. It is no different with her grandparents. They are capable adults deserving of my respect. So I accept their gifts with gratitude — and use them when practical. I know they do it out of love. But I sometimes wish they would show us love with fewer dollars, and more sense.