I am a great one for giving motherly (or mother-in-lawerly) advice, whether it’s asked for or not. I am, after all, older and wiser, right? Having been there and done that? So when my daughter-in-law was talking to me recently about cutting back on the magnitude of Christmas buying for their six-year-old daughter this year and said that they probably wouldn’t get the new baby more than one or two little things, since he’s too young to know what it’s all about anyway, I jumped in with some sage advice that perhaps they ought to make sure baby Jayden had roughly the same number of packages as little Miss Calie so that Calie would get the idea from the get-go that Jay-Jay was an equal member of the club now. (Calie has had one or two eensie teensie little adjustment issues, having been the center of the universe for six years before Jayden’s arrival.)
Over the following few weeks, this generally accepted idea – mandate, really – that parents have an obligation to treat their children with strict financial equality forever has popped up several times, on occasion slapping me in the face and even once or twice keeping me awake at night. When that kind of thing happens, I take it as a sign that I need to write about it, if for no other reason than to stop the little voices in my head.
I think most parents probably try very hard to keep everything pretty equal while their kids are growing up — at least non-masochistic parents (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one). Imagine the nightmare of perpetual whining and choruses of, “It’s not fair” you’d hear if you did anything else. Plus, you know, it teaches your kids not to play favorites. That too.
But what about when kids become adults? As children living in your home and under your protection (read: control), they have basically the same needs. As adults, that can change pretty drastically. They go in different directions. They have different struggles. One might go to college and then grad school and another might drop out of high school and think surfing could turn into a cool career, dude. One might be wildly successful while another is just … wild. One might decide to have nine children and another stick with the proverbial 1.86 American average. One might be a great saver and another a fabulous spender. One might have good luck and another really bad luck.
In my husband’s family, both his brothers completed college, but he didn’t. Does that mean his parents should have given him the equivalent amount of money that they spent on his brothers’ tuition, because he chose not to go?
In my family, my brother lived at home with my parents, for the most part, until he was 26 years old. I moved out and had my own place from the time I was 18. Does that mean my parents should have given me the equivalent of what they spent on food and support for my brother for those 8 years, because I chose to leave home earlier?
I have a friend who comes from a family of four children. Of the four, she is the only one who has never actually needed her parents’ financial help as an adult. All of her siblings have been married and divorced and have faced severe financial hardship, and the parents have stepped in and paid off mortgages and bought cars and paid for schooling for the grandchildren (we won’t get into the whole question of enabling here). Does that mean that the parents should give my friend the equivalent of the money they spent bailing out her siblings?
In my own family, I have two sons, both of whom are married and have children. My husband and I have always tried keep things as “equal” as possible. There was a time when one son, as an adult, needed some financial help, and we balanced it out with the other one as well.
But there are circumstances here that play into the equation – one son has incredible in-laws, people who are loving and kind and generous and who help them out in a lot of little ways. The other, well, doesn’t. So we’re kind of it for them; we’re their only parental figures. So how does that figure into the whole equality thing?
And where does it stop? Does it continue to extended family? Since my sister chose to have three and a half times more children than I did, my parents spent three and a half times more of my potential inheritance on her family every year for Christmas and birthdays than on my family. If I multiply that by the number of years … well, no, because she didn’t have all the kids at once so I’d have to figure out how many years there were how many kids, and then divide … no, add … no, wait a sec, subtract …
See? It just gets way too complicated. Plus I really suck at math.
This is what tears families apart when the parents bite the big one. The kids come swooping in to divide up the estate – if there’s any estate left – and that’s when the fighting starts.
“They spent $50,000 sending you to college; I should get credit for that.”
“Well, they spent $100,000 bailing you out of jail and paying for your lawyer, so really I get a $50,000 credit.”
“Well, you have six kids so if you add up all the presents they gave the kids over the years I should get credit for that.”
“Well, you’re an idiot, which caused their heart conditions, so I should get credit for all the money they spent on medical bills.”
And so on. Pretty soon the money isn’t the only thing that’s split up.
Here’s how I think it ought to go. The parents’ money is their money the whole time they are alive. That means they get to decide how they want to spend it. (Well, except the part where the government tells them how they have to spend it, like, you have to buy something – let’s say health insurance – whether you want to or not. Oh. Wait. This is not a political blog. Sorry.)
Children (adult children anyway), you don’t get to keep track of how your parents spend their money. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying you shouldn’t be concerned if a sibling is abusing a parent’s generosity to the parent’s detriment, e.g. the parent is barely scraping by or even going into debt and the sibling is taking money to gamble with or feed some other addiction. That’s a whole different scenario, because the concern there is your parent’s welfare, not your own pocketbook.)
What I’m saying is, you don’t get to keep score. Why? Because you’re all grown up now. You did not earn that money. You are (supposedly) earning your own money. If you’re not, you should be. Go earn it. If you don’t want to earn it, that’s not your parents’ problem.
Your parents are not your personal savings account. It is not their responsibility to leave you an inheritance. Some might choose to do so. That’s awesome! Woo hoo! But in the meantime, until it is actually inherited, leave it alone. It’s not yours. It’s none of your business. You don’t get to whine and complain if sister Sally gets something you don’t get. And when you do inherit, you don’t get to deduct that off sister Sally’s portion, either.
Bottom line: Pre-inheritance, it’s not your money. At inheritance, it’s a clean slate. Divide it up, say thanks, Mom and Dad, for whatever it was they left you, and have a party. That way you get to have your inheritance and your family. Maybe use a little of it and take a memorable trip with your sibling to someplace you both always wanted to go. Italy maybe.
Family trumps money every time.