Don’t copy a big-spending mom

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Dear Debt Adviser,
My mother, who has always lived for the here and now, is asking my sister and (me) to pay for her lifestyle since she quit her job two years ago. While my husband and I are trying to save every penny in case we lose our jobs, my mother has gone on vacations, racked up all her 12 credit cards, etc. Now, she is telling us that she needs our help financially.

What makes me upset is that she is telling my older daughter that I was brought up living in the here and now and doesn’t understand why I am not spending my money on vacations. All I know is that if my husband or I lose our jobs, then we will lose everything. I tell my daughter to save, save, save because in the end, if you can’t afford to pay off (a credit-card purchase) in less than a month, then you shouldn’t make it. Am I wrong?
— Carrie

Dear Carrie,
You will get no argument from me that you shouldn’t spend if you can’t afford it. I have seen too many people who have taken your mother’s philosophy on spending and then ended up truly mystified as to how they got themselves so deeply in debt. And you should not bail your mother out of her financial situation. Provide her support, but not financial support.

I do understand your mother’s attitude that you should enjoy life and live in the here and now. Plus, I’ll bet that somewhere deep down, your mother thinks you received some benefits from her overspending ways when you were younger. I have learned how quickly time passes and agree you should grab as much enjoyment out of life as you can, while you can. Where your mother and I part ways is in how you pay for that enjoyment.

I encourage all my readers to include some “fun” money in even the tightest of budgets. The trick is to manage your money in such a way that you can afford the small, and occasionally large, pleasures in life.

You and your husband are wise to be putting aside savings as a cushion should either of you lose your job or have unexpected large expenses such as a major car repair, large appliance replacement or medical bills. Everyone is concerned in our current economic environment and most people are cutting back on entertainment, putting off large purchases and generally spending less.

While saving is important and managing your finances to avoid increasing your debt is crucial, I’d encourage you to find a good balance between saving and spending. After all, our economy relies on consumer spending, and I know you want to do your part to help the economy recover.

You sound like a successful saver, so here’s a guideline for you. Build up an emergency fund of six months to a year of living expenses. Note that I said living expenses. That should be less than your income if only because you can exclude tax withholding, Social Security and retirement contributions. Once you get to that number, take a paragraph from your mom’s book and begin to set aside money for things you want to do.

I would encourage your family to sit down together and decide on what that might be. Some of my favorites include a family cruise or just a long weekend or something that will make life at home more enjoyable. You get the idea. Ask everyone what they will be willing to do on their part to save the money necessary to accomplish the family’s goal.

You will be teaching your children that saving and delaying gratification can lead to fun, and that it is important to save wisely as well as spend wisely. As far as any advice about your mom telling her granddaughter about how you were brought up, all I can say is relax and enjoy it. My kids used to howl at the stories my mother told them about my childhood, and then they’d ask me if they were true. My response was it was too long ago and I can’t remember!

Good luck!