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Helping Fixed Income Parents Stay Afloat

My dad’s given me a lot of advice over the years. While I’ve followed some of it (never sell yourself short), I haven’t with others (rub scotch on a teething baby’s gums). Now in his 80s, his advice consists mostly of, “Never get old.”

Gee, thanks Pop.

But, given his and my mom’s present circumstance, I can see where he’s coming from. Back when my parents were in their early 60s, and still excelling in full-time jobs they loved, they purchased a multi-story townhome in close proximity to each of their work places.

RELATED: Family-Friendly Ways to Save for Retirement

That was 20 years ago. In the years since they retired, my parents have exhausted their retirement accounts and now find themselves caught in the vortex of trying to fund increasing living expenses on a fixed income.

To complicate matters, my dad is a carpe diem kind of guy. Accumulating savings has always been a foreign concept to him. Trying to teach him that his income no longer supports a live-above-your-means lifestyle has not been easy, but my husband figured out that showing him a simple balance sheet did the talking for us. Like it or not, bills have to be paid and spending has to be curbed.

The worst news ever came from my dad’s former long-time employer. They were canceling retirement benefits for all former employees and their dependents. They would have to figure out how to cover their prescriptions and doctor’s visits using a Health Savings Account (HSA). There was no money in their new budget for this unforeseen expense.

My sibs and I met with my folks to propose some options. First, we suggested that they downsize and move into a smaller, one-level living space. For my mother—who still has every article of clothing she’s ever worn since 1964, from bathing suits to business suits—this was out of the question. So was the idea of raising money via a garage sale. When I floated that gem during our meeting, she didn’t say a word, but the expression on her face read, “Not gonna happen.” I didn’t bring it up again.

While my parents my not be thrilled with the whole living lean concept, at least they are together.

Nonetheless, we have found some creative ways to help them live within their means (results may vary from family to family):

Budget: If your parents are on a fixed income, I can’t say enough about listing out their monthly expenses and having a frank discussion about things they can keep and things that should go.

  • Check into the possibility of lowering their monthly mortgage payment
  • Can they apply for a freeze on their real estate tax bill?
  • Are they getting the best possible rate from their cable/Internet provider?
  • Can their credit card bills be consolidated?
  • Do they really need to subscribe to five different monthly magazines?

Car insurance: Are both of your parents still driving? If not, make sure their car insurance premiums reflect that. Many insurance companies will offer a discount to older drivers after they pass the driver’s safety test offered by AARP.

Groceries: My mom is a child of the Great Depression. She is also the parent of five children. Her kitchen counter, pantry, and cabinet were overflowing with canned goods and (mostly) nonperishable items. Her refrigerator was overstocked with sandwich meats, cheeses and eggs; and her two freezers—including a deep freeze in the basement—were stuffed with frozen roasts, chops and sausages.

After my sisters and I cleared out all expired items, we gave her a weekly amount to spend on groceries. Somehow, having a set limit has helped her make better choices at the store. We notify her of sales on items she typically buys and have done our best to introduce her to the benefits of buying off-brands.

Financial support: Each of my siblings and I have done what we can to shore up our folks when they’ve needed financial support, but not in a large-scale, sustainable way. However, at every birthday, anniversary or special occasion, we shower them with gift cards to their favorite restaurant, hair salon, gas station and grocery stores. Remember, every little bit helps.

RELATED: Parenting My Parents

While my parents my not be thrilled with the whole living lean concept, at least they are together, they are still relatively independent and have a roof over their heads. Overall, I hope we’ve helped them realize that growing old isn’t so bad after all. Time will tell.

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