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How to talk about money with aging parents

Speaking to an aging parent about finances can be difficult.

There never seems to be a good time to talk about money with family, but putting it off can be more painful in the long run. When should you first initiate a conversation about finances with your aging parents?

Tara Siegel Bernard, a personal finance reporter with The New York Times, says the sooner the better.

"I recently spoke with a family that thought they had plenty of time, then their mother died unexpectedly," says Bernard. "They didn't know their mother had a mortgage, and once they figured out that she did have a mortgage, it was in default."

So when you do decide to start a dialogue, how do you go about it? Bernard says don't be too confrontational.   

"You don't want to put anybody on the defensive," she says. "Don't say, 'You're disorganized, you're going to make this so difficult on me.' You want to kind of spin that around and use 'I' statements like, 'I'm really concerned about doing the right thing, how can we approach this together?'"

Encouraging parents to be proactive about setting up special accounts or keep important documents organized can be important as well. Parents can actually help their kids by keeping their papers out of safety deposit boxes, which might be hard to access after they pass away.

"What you want to do is get what's called a 'strong box,' or some kind of fireproof box that you can put in your house in a safe place," says Bernard.

What may be most helpful in the long run, Bernard says, is more than one conversation.

Click play on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.
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