Caregiving. It’s something I can speak to firsthand. When my late husband Ed suffered a severe stroke decades ago, I suddenly confronted a whirlwind of emotional, physical, and financial stress. It’s no wonder that I found myself having flashbacks when I read the results of a recent survey of 2,000 caregivers. The findings are frightening, but they tell a story that won’t surprise anyone who has been a caregiver for someone they love.
According to the survey, nearly three out of four respondents said that their personal financial situation causes them stress, and 92% said they help manage the finances of the person for whom they are providing care—from paying bills to handling insurance claims to dealing with debt. While struggling to manage another’s finances is certainly stressful, caregivers also tend to allow caring for a loved one to impact their own finances. Of those who help their family members financially, 30% said they’ve cut back on their living expenses to do so. Twenty-one percent have dipped into retirement savings. And 24% had trouble paying their own bills.
It’s a heavy burden. Financially and emotionally. The vast majority of caregivers—nearly 70% according to the National Center on Caregiving—are women. Since women as a group struggle more than men financially, this puts us in even greater peril to achieve financial security and confidence during our lifetimes.
I’ll tell you straight out that it is our giving nature—not our financial smarts—that puts us in that peril. My own story is a perfect example. There I was, a successful financial advisor, helping my clients make the best possible financial decisions. Yet, during Ed’s long disability, I was challenged by my new reality—being the sole earner while also being a caregiver. I was overwhelmed with the emotional side of the equation. As I was leaving the hospital to take Ed home, the case manager’s words filled my heart with even greater fear: “I guess it’s time to start spending down your assets.” And though I knew better, her chilling words cut me to the core. After all, my goal was to take care of my husband, but I was also a financial planner and swore not to put my financial security at risk.
Ed and I had been on track financially. Yet despite carefully managing spending (and feeling guilty every time I turned my focus to money), by the time Ed died, I had gone from financially comfortable to more than $80,000 in debt. Did I know what we were spending? Yes. But I simply couldn’t get myself to look at the numbers. As a result, I made some major financial missteps.
The good news: you can learn from my mistakes to avoid making them yourself. Here are my 10 “dos and don’ts” that can help every caregiver make better, smarter financial decisions—even when you’re in an emotional fog:
- DO recognize that your loved one may no longer have the ability to make wise decisions, financially or otherwise. Like caring for a child, you will need to make hard decisions—even when your loved one resists.
- DO have proper powers of attorney for healthcare and financial matters in place before a health issue arises—and use them when the time comes!
- DO have a written record and spending plan. Tracking expenses and knowing your budget is vital.
- DON’T confuse highest cost and what is best for your loved one. Consider the physical and mental needs of your loved one when choosing the best care option. A beautiful facility with extensive activities may not make sense for someone who is confined to a wheelchair or has advanced dementia.
- DON’T let your personal relationship with caregiver employees impact financial decisions. Be sure you’re paying the market rate for care, and maintain an arm’s length employer/employee relationship.
- DON’T give in to emotional blackmail.Make the best decisions based on your loved one’s current health and financial situation—not based on old promises to others or to yourself.
- DON’T neglect to keep your own financial house in order.Caring for a loved one can easily become your only focus, but caring for yourself and your future is just as important.
I learned the hard way what to do—and what not to do—when managing finances as a caregiver. Since then, I’ve focused my practice on helping women make smarter financial decisions, especially in situations when emotions can lead to disastrous results. One of the most important things you can do to help keep your finances afloat is recognize that your own emotional biases can lead to poor financial decisions—no matter how smart you are. To help stay on track, work with a financial advisor who can help you step back and look at the big picture.
As they say before every flight, in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first so you’re able to help others. The same is true when you’re serving as a caregiver. By making your own financial security a priority, you can increase your capacity to care for your loved one—without sacrificing your own future.