Dodging the Parental Boomeranger

March 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Money and Behavior

boomeranger“What goes around, comes around.”

How many times have you heard that phrase used as a subtle threat or reminder of another’s misbehavior?


That’s a word that baby boomers invented to label – in a semi-demeaning sort of way – adult children who return to their parents’  home to escape the realities of their own financial problems. (I actually don’t think that all boomerangers should be demeaned, but that’s another topic for another day.)

I have a new phrase to talk about:  The Boomer Boomeranger

Now that the retirement nest eggs of many baby boomers have been crushed by falling markets, some of those boomers are a future threat to boomerang on their adult children. Retirement Plan A (or for some boomers, Plan Zero) has failed. Retirement Plan B may become “mooch off my kids.”

Mr. ToughMoneyLove has some thoughts about how to dodge a boomeranger parent. First, a little background.

A reader recently sent me a message about her adult son and his father (her ex-husband).  Briefly, it went something like this:

I raised my son to be a good fiscal manager and he is.  I counseled him against getting one of those college credit cards and he listened!  He got a real job with excellent benefits and saves about 20% of his pay (401k).  The problem…his dad, my ex, is a mess.  A “self actualized” boomer self-employed all his life, no retirement!  Hasn’t paid social security on his sole proprietor business in years, if ever. No savings, no health care (but many chronic illnesses), massive credit card debt (boats, vacations, exotic cars) tapped his home for cash until deeply underwater. He recently remarried to tap his new wife’s retirement and medical benefits and now is busily running through her money.

Can you write to tell young adults how to ward off their spendthrift boomer parents from coming home to roost? Our son is a kind, responsible, and conscientious only child and he will be heartbroken to see his dad’s pitiful state in a few years, even though his dad will have brought it on himself. Hence, I search for “words of wisdom” to my son and other young people like him who have charming but deadbeat family members.

You have to appreciate a Mom like this.  I have to agree with her that a deadbeat charming father and a financially responsible, loving son form a high risk combination. I’m guessing that Pops is licking his chops already, eyeing the son as a future source of support.

So what do we say to the son and to others similarly situated, anticipating that day when broke Dad arrives with the first of his schemes or money sob stories?

The quick and easy advice is:  “Just say no.” That advice is too quick and too easy. The parent-child relationship often carries too much emotional baggage. Feelings of obligation and guilt in the moment can quickly overwhelm reason and logic.

The proper strategy: A pre-emptive verbal strike against dear old Dad

What kind of preemptive strike would work? To answer that (as the father of three adult sons of my own), I must put myself in the shoes of a deadbeat baby boomer. What would work for me and still preserve the father-son relationship?

First, calling me a deadbeat, mooch, leech, slacker, boomer fool, or other financial pejorative as a form of “shock therapy” will not work. There are certain boundaries in the parent-child relationship that should not be crossed, even in adulthood. In my family playbook, insulting your parent crosses that boundary, no matter how well deserved. You may keep your money but lose a parent.

Second, lecturing a potential parental boomeranger is unlikely to be successful. Tough love or not, we don’t like being lectured to by our children, even if they know more than do we on the topic of concern. Many of us think that we retain the exclusive lecturing right in the relationship until death. Heck, some kids even hear their parents speaking from the grave (or at least hear them turning over).

Having excluded the “just say no,” “leave me alone you bum,” and “Dad, you better listen to me” strategies, what options are left?

The Anti-Parental Boomeranger Script

I suggest that the child gently confront the problem (i.e., open up the can of worms) early (and maybe often) by asking the parent what his/her plans are for eventual retirement. This should be a casual, matter-of-fact conversation. By asking about “plans”, I mean the when, where, and most important the “how” of retiring. The segway into the topic is easy. Just say something like this:

Dad, I have already started to think about and plan for my eventual retirement. I’m curious, what are your retirement plans – how soon and where are you thinking about living when you retire?

I know that this should work because our sons ask questions of me like this regularly. (Not that they are concerned about us mooching off them, I hope.) It doesn’t bother me at all to talk about it with them. I love thinking and talking about retirement.

Where the conversation goes next will depend on Dad’s response to the opening gambit. The child’s goal is to ease into the next question, which is directed at the critical “how” part of Dad’s retirement. That will require another segway, to wit:

You know, my plan for financial security and eventual retirement involves frugal living, avoidance of debt, and maximizing contributions to my retirement plans. I think that should work, don’t you?

At some point in here the parent may start pushing back with comments like “you’re dreaming son, if you think that you can get away with that” or “come on, spend your money, you only live once.”

That’s when you bring out the big guns and lay the foundation for your boomer boomeranger firewall:

Dad, I’m sure you will agree that things have permanently changed in our economy. All the experts are saying that what the baby boomer generation did with its money will no longer work for us. Now more than ever, adults have to be responsible for themselves and for their spouses and children. So that’s what I am doing and will continue to do with my money. That way, I won’t ever have to depend on you, Mom, or anyone else for help.

This may bring the conversation to a screeching halt. But that’s OK, because the child said what needed to be said, without crossing problematic boundaries. The hope is that Dad will remember this preemptive conversation and never come to the child for financial support. I know that I would remember it.

So what happens if Dad nevertheless comes around with his hand out? This is where the child must stick to and recite the party line:

Dad, remember when we talked about my plans for my money, to take care of my future and my family’s future? Well, I am sorry but all of my money is committed to that plan. You taught me to be responsible. I hope you will understand that is what I am doing now.

If Dad says, “I understand”, drop it there and move on to another topic. If Dad perseveres and transitions to guilt trip mode, you can backfill a little bit:

You know, I have some very good books on financial planning that really helped me. Why I don’t I lend them to you to read.


I know an excellent financial planner (or credit counselor) who may be able to give you some advice on how to solve your problem. How about I set up an appointment for you?

And that’s about all you should do for Dad. (Maybe you can pay for the financial planning session in advance.)  You must stand firm – polite but firm. Don’t stammer, hesitate, or fudge. Don’t make up any stories about why you can’t lend Dad money. Definitely do not blame it on your spouse. State the truth that originated from that very first preemptive conversation. You want Dad to get sick of hearing it. Deception will just add to the guilt that you undoubtedly will feel for not doing more.

Some final comments on dodging parental boomerangers

This is not an easy issue to handle for anyone. I do not have any personal experience with it, other than that I am a baby boomer parent. I have read other stories of adult children confronted by parents who have been irresponsible with their money. (The online forums are filled with these stories.) Many have tried the “just this once – don’t ask again” strategy. That never seems to work so I cannot recommend it.

The real difficulties arise if the parent is medically needy, has been responsible but unlucky in life, or is so poorly situated that he/or she is about to become homeless. At that point, human decency and fundamental family obligations may take over. That can’t be helped unless you can get the government to step in.

Just remember, if an adult child sacrifices the child’s future now to aid a spendthrift parent, what goes around may come around. Don’t put yourself in that situation. That is the wrong family legacy to sustain.

Now it’s the readers’ turn to offer words of wisdom (and maybe experience) on fending off parental boomerangers. What say you?

Image credit:  Vanderwal

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13 Responses to “Dodging the Parental Boomeranger”
  1. Snowy Heron says:

    I think your suggestions about how to approach the subject are on target, as well as your suggestions about what to say to a parent who comes looking for a handout. And its not just baby boomers who have a problem – my parents and my husband’s parents were all born around 1930. My parents made good money but were totally frivolous their whole lives. My husband’s parents, just the opposite.
    Still, I wouldn’t want to see a parent out on the street (even if they put themselves there by making decades’ worth of stupid decisions). I would help out with basic living expenses, but making the payments directly to the landlord/bank/utility company. Frivolous people tend to squander the rent money. One of my sisters took our father once to a Costco or Sam’s Club that she was a member of so that he could take advantage of some of the deals on grocery type items – but what was he checking out but the jewelry section!!! What was he thinking?

  2. CLB says:

    I also think each person needs to know their limits. If a fiscally irresponsible parent needed help, what are you willing to provide? Run the numbers knowing, for example, that you are going to provide enough money for a living space, food and medications. That way, if the money never seems to last until the end of the month, you can show how with budgeting, it was plenty to cover the necessities. It may not convince the parent, but it would provide peace of mind to an adult child feeling guilty about saying ‘no more’.

    (I think the numbers should also be run for an adult child boomerang as well).

  3. That script is excellent. While my parents are deceased, this could be helpful to my sons. I’ll save it for them, in case they have any Boomeranger in-laws in the future.

  4. Mortalmombat says:

    Superb, incredibly helpful script on what to (and what not) to say. The “pre-emptive verbal strike” definitely sounds like the way to go. Definitely would work (if anything would) to ward off unrealistic parental assumptions of future freeloading. The respectful tone of adult child to older parent makes sense. No one likes to be lectured…particularly those who are in worst need of a lecture. It would be difficult to know how to respond to a parent’s rejoinders of unrealistic plans or perpetual excuses, but Mr. Tough Money Love suggests the most viable option–“broken-record” the message in a kind, but tough love way. Also TML makes an excellent point–don’t blame your spouse for cutting off the financial spigot! That should be in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Offering to hook Dad/Mom up with a financial advisor–an inspired idea! Excellent column with timely, timely advice!

  5. Kate says:

    It’s a great topic, but even with the script, I don’t think it will work if you have such a parent. My parent just shrugs nonchalantly and says, “That’s just who I am,” when talking about money management, and regarding retirement says, “I guess I will just work until I die, and when I can’t work anymore, well, maybe I’ll just kill myself.” I haven’t a clue how to influence such thinking. My parent (who makes a decent salary), ruled by impulse, simply refuses to be fiscally responsible or converse in an emotionally-neutral, rational way regarding personal finances. I can’t say that I find it comforting that there is an entire body of people who are in the same boat.

  6. Mortalmombat says:

    Kate’s point is a good one–refusal to deal with or talk about the situation is the likely response of many spendthrift parents. Perhpas she might consider saying “Glad to hear it, you’ll need to” in response to “Ill just have to work until I die.” I am guessing parents like this try to “feel out” their kids for guilt and sense of obligation and then swoop in. My question is: Why should adult kids feel any sense of guilt for their parents’ self-generated predicament? It is a totally different story when parents are down on their luck through no fault of their own after a lifetime of trying to work and do the right thing. But these parents are NOT the ones who feel entitled to their kids’ nest eggs, moaning “poor me.” Instead, they are the ones whose photos are in the news as the 70 year olds working at Walmarts. Taking responsibility to the end. These seniors need more praise, recognition and interviews re their old fashioned values and determination to be good examples.

  7. katy says:

    Wish you guys were in the room with us!

    My husbands sister just wrote him a letter. His mother was prodded to collect social at 75!!! She gave her last house to the Unity Church and slept on a friends couch afterward. Dad hasn’t worked since 1986 (bum) and is dying with an oxygen tank now.

    It never ends. (laughing)

  8. Ana says:

    Nice script, but charming Dad who has lived his life at the bars and loves to buy strangers a round has come-a-knocking on my door already.

    If you are at this point (as I am) this is what I am doing…

    (1) Take full control of his finances (legally)
    (2) Get him an apartment
    (3) Pay all his bills directly
    (4) Leave him with little ‘food cash’ per day.
    No Car, No Credit Card, No Debit Card,
    Arrange Lots of Small Easy Chores and Charity Activities.

    I’ll let you know how this goes in 6 months time

  9. Amy says:

    My ex has been threatening my 25 years old son who is in law school to repay the money spent raising him up, in the amount of $220,000+. He threatens to ruin the child’s reputation. Any advice?

  10. Amy says:

    My ex has been threatening my 25 years old son who is in law school to repay the money spent raising him up, in the amount of $220,000+. He threatens to ruin the child’s reputation. Any advice? We’ve been ignoring the threat. Is there any way to stop the harassment?

  11. mortalmombat says:

    Obviously your son is in the right profession. He should not give his dad a penny. Your son should immediately consult with one of his professors and ask him to refer him to someone in authority at his law school on how to handle this. Your son is very fortunate–he is a law student surrounded with successful litigators. Your ex is a moron…but you already knew that.

  12. Levon says:

    I wish I had read this before I tried to address this issue with my father. The word limit in this comments sections prevents me from sharing the details of his frivolous ways. Although most readers here are probably familiar with the examples I would share anyway.

    Now I need to learn to be a loving son, and to somehow look past my fathers foolishness. /sigh

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