Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Mom's Money: Gender, the Generation Gap, and Personal Finance

On Sunday night, after returning from the bar mitzvah, I put in some time helping my mom with her identity theft mess. I was pretty shocked to learn that she hadn't yet pulled her credit reports or placed fraud victim alerts on them. She had canceled the compromised card, signed up with a credit monitoring service, and begun wrangling with the companies that had charged the canceled card, so it wasn't an issue of being unwilling to put in the effort--she just didn't know what to do. I directed her to AnnualCreditReport.com, and in helping her verify herself to receive her reports, discovered that she didn't know what bank held her and my dad's second mortgage, or what the monthly payment was. She guessed the highest range the question offered as an option; when I asked my dad, it was within the lowest.

I also told her that she has to be really vigilant about her bills and statements for the next few months (at least), and my dad started in on how she never checks them over. Now, my dad's not exactly a financial paragon himself in many ways, but I never thought my mother was this clueless about her financial life. She's a gifted thrift-store shopper with a M.A. in arts administration, which means she's done half the coursework for a management degree (she did tell me that she almost failed her accounting class, though). But mostly, I just didn't think she was that kind of woman--the kind who can can just say, "Oh, my husband is taking care of it," and that's the end of that. That's certainly not the kind of woman she raised me to be.

I wonder if this is the way she always lived, or if her money-management muscles began to atrophy after marrying my dad. I know she worked a bunch of crappy jobs and lived very cheap when she was a young college dropout living in New York, and I know that she ran all the finances for her art gallery herself. Then again, I also know that the gallery went under. My mom comes from a family with a lot of money and a lot of (serious) problems, and I don't know if she got parental support or not--I could see it making sense either way. So I can't really say if these are skills she let lapse or skills she never developed to begin with.

But either way, it's weird for me because it's just not the kind of person I thought my mom was. I think of my mother as brave and independent and sort of unusual for her time--I think of her dropping out of her Seven Sisters college and moving to New York to go to Factory parties, or of her work bringing new technology into the curricula of the poorest New York City schools, or the way she talked her way into an MA program at an Ivy League school without a BA (she still doesn't have one, but she has two Masters degrees). And it's strange, because this is such a normal (if kind of unfortunate) thing for married women of my mother's generation, this learned helplessness thing, but it's not something I ever associated with my mom. I guess I always assumed she was an equal partner in my parents' finances. And it's not that she doesn't bring skills and attributes to my parents' financial table--because she certainly does (I can vouch for that myself; I've transfered the communications about my medical billing from my dad to my mom, and it's gone much more smoothly)--it's just that I always assumed she was as familiar with the big picture of their finances as my dad. And she's not. And that's weird to me.

15 comments:

Addy said...

I discovered the same thing about my mom recently. The same mom that has always told me that I should never need to depend on a man. Of course, my mom got married to my dad at 19. She's got an engineering degree, but apparently my dad did half of her homework. She's certainly never needed to handle her own finances. So maybe in my case, it's to be expected. But in your case where your mom lived independently, etc, maybe you have even more reason to be surprised.

MEG said...

I've had similiar insights lately. My mom has always been strong, courageous, and raised me and my sisters to be very independent. She also has always been more or less frugal...OK that might not be true, but she's definitly not one of those shopper moms.

But there's no WAY she has ever checked her credit report or that she would know what to do if her identity was stolen. It could be that these are more "modern" issues. She's not very internet savvy, and she doesn't read PF books, so how would she know?

She is very debt averse and doesn't carry credit card debt...but she doesn't track her investments, and she doesn't even know how much she has!

These seeminly contradictory characteristics are confusing to me as well, especially since my mom is one of those super organized, color coded calendar types. She's also a high school math teacher, so it's not like she doesn't get numbers...

It's definitly a generational thing. These days we are over-loaded with personal finance issues in the media. And we also receive cautionary tales of broke retirees and divorced moms being forced out of the suburbs and into minimum wage jobs. I think that stuff was largely inconceivable to our moms as young women.

Our moms weren't entirely expected to have careers, to save, or to have to worry about debt. Besides, most jobs came with pensions, and you couldn't borrow more than you could afford if you tried. Times have definitly changed.

Mrs. Micah said...

My dad knows a lot about credit and credit cards, and my mom relies on him for much of her info. But she was 37 when she got married and managed to live without being in debt. She had lots of savings when they got married, which has helped them. I don't know how she'd do in this situation, though.

At least she raised a strong and aware daughter who can help her with this.

e-jeezy said...

a few off topic things i'd like to ask you (sorry they dont relate to your newest entry, but i just found your blog and have read back quite a ways).

1. why do you and k share expenses on things? i dont mean to be rude at all, but my girlfriend and i decide to buy things, and generally i pay for them, or if she just got paid, she pays for them. is there a reason you and k split things?

2. i contributed to the donorschoose account, and heres to hoping that the goal is met soon!

3. i (per your advice) just began using the BofA my portfolio feature. I too have an ING account, and am having trouble getting the ING account to register in my portfolio. Do you recall any troubles getting it to work when you signed up? I input my customer # and pin #, and was having trouble.

Any input on either issue would be greatly appreciated. I look forward to future reading.

Happy writing!

Ashley said...

My mom does the every day things, like the checking account. But when I asked her about retirement stuff she said her husband "takes care of all that stuff."

That attitude worries me and annoys me. What if something happens - like divorce - then you're screwed and you have no retirement savings of your own.

Ms. M&P said...

That's a tough thing to all of a sudden find out. I found out my mom didn't know much about our finances growing up and it really surprised me. I wonder how much of it is just conditioned or if it's something that's also a personal preference. I know that some of my friend's moms took care of all the finances and their dads were clueless about the finances. The cluelessness does seem to skew towards women, though.

English Major said...

e-jeezy:

1) K and I share expenses because it's what we used to do before we lived together (for example, we paid for our own meals when we went out to dinner together—I'm a going-Dutch kind of girl), and we never got out of the habit. Now we mostly trade off purchases (groceries, dinners, etc.). However, he makes more money than I do, and so generally picks up things like taxis and takeout. I don't at all think our system is the best one; it's just how we roll.

2) Thanks for your contribution!

3) I remember having to enter the answers to some of my verification questions when I registered my ING account—have you had to do that? The other thing you can do is click on the alerts in the My Portfolio interface; there should be more directions for you to follow there.

Thanks for your comments!

S/100/30 said...

I've recently stumbled across the same sort of issues with my mom, although in her case it's less about not knowing their financial situation, where their accounts are, etc., and more thinking that she can't forcefully raise financial issues with my dad that she disagrees with (e.g. thinking a particular investment is too risky, that he should see a retirement specialist).

Also, not how she raised me to be. But I'm starting to suspect our moms are raising us not as reflections of their financial selves but responses to them.

Escape Brooklyn said...

My mom is very similar and I agree that it's probably a generational thing. My mom's part of the "agreement" she made with my dad was to have and raise the children, and his part was to bring home and manage the money. Course, my mom must have known she was getting the lousy end of the stick because she raised my sister and me to be very independent.

Turns out my dad wasn't as good with the money as she wanted him to be, however, so now in her late fifties she's (finally!) managing the money and enforces a tight household budget so they can get back on track. But I wish she'd been more proactive all along.

Steve W said...

This is an over-generalization based on a few personal experiences. My mother, who would be 64 if she were alive today, handled every single aspect of my parents' finances. She knew where everything was. When she went into the hospital for the final time (she died from a slow, long-term illness), she wrote out all the checks to pay bills for the coming 3 months....

In her case, and in mine now, it was about division of labor. When you are married with children (I have 5), you and your spouse cannot become 100% redundant resources. You have to divide the labor. Yes, it's dangerous to place your financial dependency onto another person, but if your marraige is strong and the trust is there, then it only makes sense to divide up the duties. I handle all of our finances (thoroughly documented for my wife, and disaster-recoverable) because I'm much better at it, and enjoy it, and because wife is over-loaded with other family duties, for which she has a much greater preference. My father and mother were the reverse, and they were pre-baby boomers.

I don't think this issue is as simple as gender & generation.

gildedbutterfly said...

I went through the same type of insight with my mom when I was a junior in high school and my parents divorced. It's strange to see your mom suddenly through new eyes, and wonder how she got to that point.

It really makes you proud and grateful that they raised us to be more independent, doesn't it?

Sistah Ant said...

i think maybe it was just division of labor. but it think even when someone's the go-to guy on something, the other spouse should know and understand what's going on.

my BF and i split stuff too, 'cause that's how it was before we moved in together. maybe when we marry we'll revisit the game plan...

coffeebean said...

Been following your blog for a long while, and I love it!

On this specific issue, I am the one who handles every aspects of our financial life, from writing checks to pay small bills to arranging how much we should put in each of our 401k or Roth. I am simply better at it, can't say I love it, but I absolutely don't mind doing it or doing research on it. My husband has minimal interest in any issues related with money. Whenever he goes to ATM to take cash, he'd call me to ask for PIN, over and over again...

Like what steve said, as long as the marriage is strong and the trust is there, it makes sense to divide the labor.

I also realize I should do a better job documenting all of our financial information. We don't have any kids yet, but still, I can't imagine what he would do if I am not there....

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm inclined to agree with the other commenters. There's no reason to be particularly down on your mother. My wife certainly could handle the finances, but why should she when she has me to do it for her? Tax strategies would just make her tear her hair out, while I read about them for fun. (Like other commenters though, I am very careful to ensure that she knows where all of our accounts are and how to access them and a rough idea of our holdings and how they're invested, just in case anything happens to me.)

finance girl said...

I volunteer as a financial counselor to women, and continue to be amazed at how women of older generations are dismissive of learning about finances "oh, my husband takes care of that" or "oh, i take care of the money, i pay the bills" (sigh).

When I find a woman who runs her own balance sheet and money as a business, I just about fall down I am so shocked.

Then again I have only met one woman in person who was like that (besides me)