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It could be time to talk with your Boomer parents about their money. Here are some tips

The holidays might seem like an ideal time for adult children to have important conversations about finances with their aging parents, but experts say you have to find the right time and audience.

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As a parent, Cliff Robb, a professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin, tries to talk about basic finances like budgeting to his kids.

Take for example, the basics of budgeting. 

“When they want something, we talk about ‘Well, if we were to do that, here’s what we possibly couldn’t do, and here’s one of the things we might have to sacrifice,’” he said.

He goes through meal planning as part of a discussion about why they can’t just eat out all of the time. And they pick activities together, with the knowledge that activities cost money and time. 

Robb's hoping that in the future, when he’s older and his kids are adults, the conversations more focused on his finances and care preparations are easier to have. 

“One of the things that’s sometimes challenging for households and families and just people in general is financial transparency,” he said.

As Americans age, there are a number of things they should be thinking about making sure they have and are able to pay for, including long-term care, estate planning and retirement.

And for families, experts said, that should be a family discussion – of where money is, how bills are paid, what the plans are for care later in life, and how they'll be paid. 

So with the holidays coming up, we spoke to experts about what adult children should know about their parents’ finances – and how to ask them.

Don’t do it at the Thanksgiving table

Cameron Huddleston, director of education at Carefull, a financial monitoring service, and author of the book "Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk,” said that the Thanksgiving dinner table is a terrible time to talk to your parents about their finances.

“People often think this is a great time to have these family money talks because everyone’s there," she said. "But the problem is there can be other people there who you don’t want to be part of the conversation.”

The holidays can also be stressful, Huddleston said, and bringing up money can only increase the stress level. If the holidays are truly the only time when everyone is in town, Huddleston suggested bringing up the topic casually, while prepping a meal or watching football.

“I wouldn’t go deep into it. I would just bring up the topic and just let your parents know you’d like to find a time to sit down and have a more in-depth conversation,” she said. 

Financial planning: How to help kids learn how to be responsible with money

So how do you even start the conversation?

Current events are a great way in, experts said.

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and you can let your parents know you are still worried about what can happen in a pandemic and want to know what emergency planning they’ve done,” Huddleston said. 

Or you can tell them about some financial planning you’ve done lately – whether it’s drafting a will, investing in a 401(k) or something else to plan for. Then, casually ask if they’ve done something similar and for some more details. 

“Ask parents for advice,” Huddleston said. “That helps avoid the role reversal.”

Case studies – or talking about a scenario that happened to a friend or something in the news – helps make it in an easier discussion, said Joyce Serido, an associate professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.

“Then it becomes a discussion about a third party instead of an individual,” she said. "That for me turns out to be this idea of using a case study or an example as a way to focus on the topic without zeroing in initially on 'Well, what are you going to do' or 'Why are you going to do that?' which can make people defensive."

'This is not just about financial topics, this is about life stage planning'

Serido advises getting support from people who deal with intergenerational wealth issues, such as financial planners, educators or financial therapists, can offer some advice on navigating the difficult but necessary conversation. 

"This is not just about financial topics," she said. "This is about life stage planning."

To find some help, she recommends looking through AFCPE, an organization that focuses on building financial well-being instead of wealth building.

'In case of emergency, consult this piece of paper'

Huddleston said it's important to know some basic facts in case of emergency. Are your parents paying their bills automatically? What do they have?

She recommends starting the topic with something like, "Hey if something happens and you're in the hospital and I have to make sure your bills are being paid, what do I have to know about how your bills are paid?" she said. "I had a friend who used that approach, and it was so simple, and she asked her mom that question and she said, 'I never even thought of that.' And she went home and she made a complete list for her daughter of the bills she pays.'"

Huddleston also suggests offering to sign papers to help handle finances in case a parent is unable, as well as an advanced directive and health care proxy to give adult children the power to make health care decisions – and instructions from the parent about whether they want to be on life support and other crucial decisions.

And every adult, she said, needs a will or estate plan. 

Not having one, she warned, could result in costly court fees and headaches.

And finally, she said, it's important to talk about your parents' plans for long-term care, which can be expensive and takes years of planning.

"Most people do not have a plan to pay for long-term care," she said. "But it's so important to find out whether your parents have a plan to pay for long-term care, because if they don't there's a good chance you could be your parents' long-term-care plan."