1. Business

Dear Penny: How do I tell Mom I'm worried about her retirement plans?

[Getty Images]
[Getty Images]
Published Jul. 1, 2019

Dear Penny,

I recently spent time with my mother, who is 67 and is planning on going into semi-retirement soon. I asked her about her financial plans for retirement and what she told me has me feeling concerned.

She has three retirement accounts: a pension that gives her about $100 a month, a 401(k) from a job she hasn't worked at in over a decade and another 401(k) from her current employer. She didn't know the balance of the inactive 401(k), but she could tell me that she has about $40,000 in the active 401(k). That's the extent of what she knows about her 401(k)s.

Fortunately, she owns her house outright and doesn't have a lot of debt, and she has a healthy savings account that's got more than $10,000 in it.

Even so, I worry that she's going to enter semi-retirement and quickly discover that she doesn't have nearly enough saved up to take care of herself, let alone her husband or my adult half-brother, both of whom have disabilities and are not able to work. I'm not really in a position to be able to help her out should that happen.

I want to help her figure out how to make the most of what she's got, but I'm not sure where to start. Also, I worry that I might seem like I'm overstepping my boundaries as her daughter, but at the same time, if she doesn't start taking steps now, I worry she's going to be in a very hard situation when she decides to step back from her job.

-Mothering My Mother

Dear Mothering,

You're not overstepping your boundaries by talking to your mother about her retirement plans. Having these sometimes awkward conversations with your parents is an act of love. But approaching these talks is tricky because, as your signature implies, you're taking on a parent-like role.

Suppose the situation were reversed and your mother was worried about your finances. How would you want her to broach this topic?

You wouldn't want to be ambushed; you'd want a head's-up that a serious talk is coming. So be direct. Tell your mom you're worried about her retirement plans and ask when she can set aside time to talk.

As part of the pre-conversation, you might give her a gentle nudge by asking if she's made any progress on locating her old 401(k). The simplest way for her to do that is to contact her old employer, provided that they're still around. Otherwise, she can search for her 401(k) funds by creating an account through the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.

When you actually do have The Talk, try not to hit her with a diatribe about what she should and shouldn't be doing. Instead, start by asking questions. Is she confident that she's ready for semi-retirement? Does she have an estimate for how much she'll need to survive in retirement?

If she has concerns, hopefully, she'll open up about them and you can devise a plan to help. Otherwise, be prepared to make the case for why you're concerned.

As for how to help your mother make the most of her retirement savings, there's really no hard-and-fast rule. Both the IRS and the company that sponsors a 401(k) have a host of complicated rules about what you can do with your retirement money.

While you may be able to help your mom better understand her options, you'll need to respect the fact that these are her decisions to make.

If you know you're not in a position to help your mother financially, communicate that. But also remember that helping a retired parent doesn't necessarily mean supporting them for the rest of their lives.

For example, if you have a little wiggle room in your budget and you're concerned about whether your mom could withstand an emergency expense, you could open a savings account and set aside $100 a month you could use to help her out if needed.

Just realize that where your mother is at is the product of nearly five decades' worth of financial decisions and life circumstances she's faced in her adult life. You can't reverse all that. But by starting an open dialogue about money now, you can help her navigate the challenges ahead.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at the Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about difficult money conversations to


  1. Muhammad Abdur-Rahim points out the location of what he believed to be a former African American cemetery next to the parking lot of FrankCrum Staffing, 100 S Missouri Ave. in Clearwater. Now, it appears the cemetery may have been on an adjacent lot where the building stands. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
    Archaeologists were scanning a vacant lot for bodies until an old city record pointed them to an adjacent property.
  2. Construction continues on the new Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County located in Wesley Chapel. The center will feature a 98,000 square foot sports center with eight bio-cushioned hardwood courts that can be utilized for basketball, volleyball, mixed martial arts, gymnastics, wrestling, soccer, futsal, cheerleading and dance. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    The $44 million facility is expected to hold its first tournament in September
  3.  [Getty Images]
    While credit scores will fall for millions, millions more will see their scores rise.
  4. Lucky's Market ahead of its St. Petersburg grand opening just two years ago. [Times (2018)]
    Only one Florida Lucky’s Market will remain a Lucky’s. The future of the Tampa Bay locations is still unclear.
  5. Internet crimes are on the rise in Florida. [AP Photo]
    Also: Why were the SunTrust Financial Centre lights purple? And the cost of owning an electric car.
  6. AdventHealth's central Pasco emergency room at t 16625 State Road 54 is shown here. The hospital chain recently purchased 18 acres on State Road 52 at the northern entrance of the Mirada development west of Dade City. [MICHELE MILLER  |  Times]
    The hospital chain pays $4.5 million to buy 18 acres from a Metro Development Group affiliate.
  7. [Getty Images] [Getty Images]
    It would probably be good to ask his thoughts, the advice columnist writes.
  8. Renderings by Arquitectonica of the proposed Red Apple Group condo project in St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Arquitectonica [Courtesy of Arquitectonica]
    $300 million. 45 stories. A little closer to existence.
  9. A group of East Lake residents has erected signs protesting a 44-home development proposed by Tarpon Springs developer Pioneer Homes. Tarpon Springs commissioners recently voted to annex the site into the city. [Courtesy of Marc Washburn]
    The action targets a plan to build 44 homes on land between Keystone Road and Highland Avenue, double what was allowed in the East Lake District.
  10. People gather around an auctioneer at the liquidation sale following local bike store Flying Fish Bikes closing [Romy Ellenbogen]
    The liquidation sale was packed with people hoping to get discounted bike gear.