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Money, Stress and the Sandwich Generation

by Bonnie Vengrow

For as long as Wendy Walker could remember, her mother, Betty, had always handled the family's finances. But that changed last winter, when Betty slipped and broke her hip. Suddenly, Walker was in charge of making sure her mother's bills were paid, and her mom was being cared for properly.

It helped that Betty made sure the family was prepared. She has assets, investments, secondary insurance, Medicare and a long–term care policy. But that doesn't mean Walker doesn't have some concerns about expenses, especially when it comes to health care costs. "Whenever she wanted to spend, I always thought, 'It's her money — she should do that,'" she says. "But now I'm thinking, what if she breaks her hip again, and how will we handle all the things Medicare doesn't pay for?"

If that weren't enough, Walker and her husband are also figuring out how to assume the extra responsibilities while raising their 5–year–old daughter and saving for their own future. "I'm thinking about this all the time," she says of retirement planning. "The last thing I'd want is for my daughter to pay to care for us and put that burden on her when she's young."

That balancing act is par for the course for the so–called sandwich generation, or the adults who are "sandwiched" between caring for their aging parents and their own children. It's a group that's on the rise, as Americans are living longer than ever. A 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of adults between the ages of 40 and 59 have a parent 65 or older and a child they're providing for.

Such responsibilities can drain two of your most important resources: time and money. But the sandwich generation is not shying away from helping. That same report found that 28% of respondents helped their parents financially in the last 12 months, and 60% pitched in with their parents' personal care or daily tasks.

Nearly half of adults between the ages of 40 and 59 have a parent 65 or older and a child they're providing for. Pew Research Center, 2015

Still, the eventual questions center around how to allocate your time and money in a way that's fair to everyone — stressful choices that can trigger feelings of guilt and deeper financial stress.

Should I put my personal financial future first — or focus on my children and parents?

"Even the most right–brained folks are grasping intuitively that as money is flowing into parents and kids — and not into retirement accounts — something may be off balance in one's personal future," explains Manisha Thakor, Director of Wealth Strategies for Women at Buckingham & the BAM Alliance and author of Get Financially Naked.

While it's important to stay focused on your financial future, that doesn't mean it's always easy to do. Sandwich generation members, particularly women, who still provide most of the care, often feel guilty about putting themselves ahead of others — and cultural and societal norms, values, and expectations may exacerbate those feelings.

"One of the things we see about money is that any time the flow of money runs against the grain of a core value — whether that's personal, family, intellectual, spiritual, or cultural — there is stress and there is tension," she explains. "I think the root issue is the interplay between the money and the core value, of which in some cultures, taking care of your elders is a fairly strong one. For people who come from that, it's like cutting off a finger to think of violating that."

That was certainly the case for Margaret S., a mom of four from Virginia, who cared for her aging mother in her home and now provides support for her mother–in–law. "The whole balancing act is the most difficult thing," she says. "Between the parents and the kids and yourself, the person who suffers is you, because it's the most logical place to take resources."

The whole balancing act is the most difficult thing. Margaret S.

While it may be difficult, don't feel selfish about putting your financial future first and keeping your plans on track — especially if you're diverting additional resources to your parents.

Am I being disloyal to my family by setting money boundaries and limitations?

The idea that family trumps money is fine in theory, but in reality, there's only so much money available each month. Boundary setting is the natural next step, but many in the sandwich generation hesitate to do so, Thakor says. For some, saying no is almost tantamount to admitting you're not as successful as you thought you'd be and can't provide in the way you thought you could. Others, meanwhile, equate setting limitations around money with a lack of loyalty to family, often leading to financial stress. "I hear this so often and am thinking, what's really stressing people out about this? I think it's that swirly combination," Thakor explains. "Any one of these alone wouldn't be a stressor, but it's the fact that both of them are present."

And yet, boundaries can be liberating because they help all parties understand what financial resources they have to work with, she adds. The key is to set limits that match the recipient's personality and spending and saving habits. For example, it may make sense to put into writing how much money you're willing to give an adult child who always seems to "forget" your budget conversations. Or, if you have an elderly parent with cognitive issues, you may need to explain that you can allocate a certain amount to their healthcare expenses, and therefore need to be involved in their healthcare decisions to make sure that money is being maximized.

Am I missing out on or delaying my personal or professional aspirations by caring for my parents and children?

An unspoken price many in the sandwich generation are paying is missed opportunities. It takes time to stay home and help someone, and that tradeoff can manifest itself in several ways, Thakor says. Perhaps you're less present or less efficient at work. Maybe you have to take a leave of absence or take a lower–level job that provides more flexibility. And a result, you could be losing out on opportunities to advance your career.

No one knows that better than Lisa B., a mom of three in Weston, CT. A couple of years ago, three days into a weeklong visit at her home, her father slipped on the deck in her backyard and broke his foot in several places. Due to the injury and pre–existing health conditions, the recuperation time was extensive — he lived in Bigelow's dining room for three months.

Then a full–time freelance writer, she slashed her work hours in half and refused additional assignments so she could devote herself to caring for him and her three children. The reduced workload meant a significant drop in earnings. She estimates that she lost around $2,000–$3,000 a month in gross income — just as she and her husband were assuming expenses for her father's medical equipment, medicine, and clothes.

My professional obligations get pushed to the nooks and crannies of my time. Margaret S.

But not everyone is able to lighten their workload, and the issue then becomes how to juggle job responsibilities while caring for the family. "My professional obligations get pushed to the nooks and crannies of my time," Margaret S. explains. "My performance is always best in the morning, but I spend the day running around instead and then I have to work late at night." The solutions are anything but one size fits all, and determining what will work best for you can take some time.

Am I making the right choices with my time?

That other important resource that gets stretched and taxed when you're caring for parents and children? Time. For the sandwich generation, the concept can be both practical (spending all afternoon driving your parent to doctors' appointments) and existential (time really is limited). "So often, the first time you intuitively know, rather than intellectually know, that time is finite is when you're engaged in elder care activities, and then you start questioning whether or not you've made the right choices," Thakor says. "But you literally don't have the time to start thinking and reflecting and figuring out what to do if the answer to that might be negative."

Walker, for instance, estimates that she spends at least two hours every day overseeing the care of her mom, who live a couple of hours away. "It would be much less stressful if I was in the same town," she admits, "but it would take over my life. For right now, it's so much easier to stand at a distance."

"You do what you can," she adds. "There is really no perfect way to do it."

For more strategies on how to talk to your elderly parents about their financial future, check out How to Start the Money Talk with Your Parents.

Bonnie Vengrow
Bonnie Vengrow is a writer and editor based in NYC. She has written for Parents, The Bump, Rodale's Organic Life, Good Housekeeping, Today.com, and others.

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