On Wall Street

Give Mom and Dad a Break: Advisors should help parents prioritize financial goals and create timelines without increasing their guilt.

December 1, 2004

Parents of young children, and especially mothers, are prone toward guilt. Parents feel that there is always something more that they could be doing. Working mothers feel guilty they are not home spending more time with their children. At-home mothers feel guilty that they cannot afford to spend more money on their children. Guilt is inherent in the job.

This guilt is compounded for mothers who are single parents. They tend to have fewer financial options and greater demands on their time and resources. Many of these mothers also feel conflicted because they are told their children are put at a disadvantage by being raised without fathers. Some mothers want to compensate for this "loss" by spending more on their children, but they cannot afford to do so. And the guilt increases.

The financial media is good at adding to parental guilt by telling parents what they "should" be doing. For example, they should be contributing 10 percent of their income toward retirement; they should be buying whole life insurance; they should be saving for college; and they should be creative enough to cut expenses.

It is our job, as financial planners and advisors, to not increase the guilt that parents feel.

As advisors, it is clear that one of the most important times for families to review their financial plan is when they are starting to have children. These plans typically reflect a long list of goals and concerns, such as:

* a desire to spend less time working in order to spend more time with the young children;

* the need to pay child-care costs and other expenses (classes, sports, camps, tutors);

* new housing needs;

* new car needs;

* insurance costs (medical, life, disability, liability);

* multiple one-time expenses (pregnancy clothes, new furniture, baby supplies);

* unexpected expenses (infertility, adoption, children with special needs);

* paying off old debt;

* building an emergency fund;

* saving for children's college costs; and

* ongoing retirement concerns.

Unfortunately, reality usually gets in the way of reaching all these goals. The family often has limited financial resources competing for multiple goals.

As financial advisors, what can we do to reduce the guilt that parents feel while helping them reach their goals?

The most important task is to help parents prioritize their goals and set timelines for reaching them. For example, we need to show parents that paying off consumer debt makes more sense than putting money into college savings plans. Second, we can let families know new strategies for saving, such as using cafeteria plans to pay for dependent care and medical needs with before-tax dollars. Third, we need to remind parents to accept money offered to them from all sources. Grandparents are often at a time in their lives that they want to help their children and grandchildren.

Advisors are also in a unique position to compliment and support parents of young children for how well they are doing in reaching goals. Praise can be a wonderful motivator.

Finally, I believe there is a type of healthy guilt, which causes people to take action--whether it be to clean windows or finish important legal documents. Whenever we meet with parents, we need to ask if they have completed their wills, named their beneficiaries, and reviewed their basic insurance.

And we need to remind them to take care of themselves first before taking care of their children. This is analogous to when the oxygen masks drop on an airplane and we are instructed to put on our masks before helping others. Parents--especially mothers--need to remember that caring for their own needs is a crucial part of caring for their children's needs.

Sharon Rich, Ed.D, is president of WOMONEY, a fee-only financial planning firm in the Boston area that focuses on the needs of women and their families. She can be reached at sharon.rich@womoney.com.

Sharon Rich

Copyright 2004 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.