Updates on Mom and lessons from a rosemary bush

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If you’ve been keeping up with our life, then you know one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced on our journey to financial independence is dealing with my Mom. We explain this fully in an earlier post entitled how we’re dealing with a financially insecure parent. In short, she’s one of many that never quite recovered from the 2008 recession and has been living near the brink ever since.

After being downsized, under-employed, upside down on her mortgage and in a downward cycle of debt with her peak earning years behind her, she was forced to tap into her modest retirement savings early to survive the tough times.  All of this, combined with being single and a handful of financial hiccups have put her in a position where she’s drawing down from a tiny pot of cash.  That is, until recently.

In 2017, after years of poking and prodding, we sat her down, ran through her expenses, investments and helped her make a few financial decisions that would secure her retirement in the short run. She took most of our recommendations except for one big one; selling the house. Like many people, she was sitting on a good amount of equity in her home with no real way to tap into it besides a HELOC. At the time, she expressed that she loved her home, her garden, her neighbors and had every intention to stay there.

But over the years, she came to the realization that the cost of ownership was just too heavy to bear.  One day it was the roof, the next day it was windows, a new refrigerator or leaks in the basement. So when she got the direct mail “offer” from Opendoor, she was intrigued. Like any mother would do that was unfamiliar with this concept, she reached out to us to see “if this was real”. 

A few weeks later, a couple signed agreements, in-person inspections, a handful of emails and she accepted the offer.  To say the least, my Mom was ecstatic and we were too.  She found a quick and seamless way to sell her home, now has access to more cash to supplement her Social Security and relieved herself of covering another costly home repair.  This was the much needed breathing room she needed. But where would she live?

Well, while she was considering the offer, she also took it upon herself to look for a senior living apartment community.  After putting herself on several waitlists [some as long as two years] she found one near her [now] old home.  She was familiar with the area, liked everything they had to offer and was able to score the last two bedroom unit they had available. 

Her new apartment is affordable, includes some of her utilities, is a few minutes closer to our place and will give her just enough room for sleepovers with her grandson whenever she wants.  Of course, she had to make some compromises with the living conditions compared to her old home but all things considered, she’s happy and we couldn’t be happier for her.  But she didn’t stop there.

She then decided to act on some recommendations from friends to host a garage sale.  She pulled together some balloons, a few signs, whispered in the ear of some church friends and was ready to go at 9 AM sharp on a beautiful Saturday.  To show support, we swung by and brought our son to root her on. 

By the time we got there, she’d already sold her couch and dining room table, netting her a cool $500 by lunchtime.  By the end of the day, she’d cleared $654 and was happy as a kid on Christmas.  I was happy too but also found myself wrestling with some deep emotions and bittersweet memories.


During the garage sale, I spent most of my time in the backyard with our son doing what he loves most; picking up sticks. We’ve always known and loved just how simple our son’s needs are and at this point in our lives, he’s our greatest example and teacher of how powerful minimalism can be.  

In addition to artwork, a coffee maker, a Crockpot, glassware and china there was a giant turquoise vase up for sale.  I remembered clearly the circumstance and moment I made the decision to buy it for her over fifteen years ago.  It was huge, heavy and expensive and I was sorta pressured to buy it by my Godmother [RIP] who told me that my Mom saw it in Pier 1 Imports, loved it but couldn’t afford it. My Godmother thought it would be the perfect big surprise for Christmas and that as her only son, I should buy it for her.  If I had to guess, I believe it cost between $150 and $200 at the time. 

I remember stretching my budget to get it because I felt she deserved it but I also clearly remember not feeling comfortable blowing my budget on a vase that would just…sit there.  Yes, it was a pretty vase that matched some artwork she had but at the time, I had no appreciation for that sort of thing and I wasn’t making a lot of money.

But since it was my Mom and I knew I owed her so much, I made the decision to buy it for her.  Looking back, this moment was one of the earliest reminders of how social and cultural expectations can get in the way of your best intentions to stay on track with a budget. So I bought the vase with love, appreciation and a tad bit of guilt in my heart.

Now, over fifteen years later, she was selling it for $12. I wasn’t upset about the price.  In fact, I wasn’t upset at all.  But seeing her sell it and recalling the pressure I felt to make an uncomfortable financial decision was a full circle moment for me. It brought back a flood of other moments in my life that shaped my thinking about money and led me to where I am today. 

My decision to “just buy it”, despite knowing it was way outside my budget was precisely the sort of decision my Mom was prone to making over the years and a contributor the financial struggles she’s experienced over her lifetime. But moments like this also contributed to the resentment I felt as I began to take more control of my financial life while watching her make vastly different decisions. For the record, I don’t fault my Godmother or my Mom for any of this. Both worked incredibly hard, were endlessly generous and helped to shape me into the man I am today.

As all of these emotions stirred around, my son, the person my mother loves the most in the whole world is outside reminding us all about how simple life could be if we didn’t over complicate it with our desire for fancy “things”. He doesn’t care about brand names, premium cuts of meat, hotel suites with a view or artwork that he hasn’t made with his own hands.

Watching him play in the backyard brought me back to my own childhood and the long stretches of time I would spend in the Jamaican countryside at my grandparent’s house.  Like him, I enjoyed roaming around their yard, chasing lizards, butterflies and picking up giant breadfruit leaves much like my son loved picking up twigs.

My grandparent’s home was as humble as it gets.  It was propped up on cinder blocks, there was no running hot water, it had a thin zinc sheet roof and a random array of holes in the floorboards that allowed me to see the chickens as they scurried under the house every now and then.  To a city kid like me, it was paradise

But as I grew older, somewhere along the way, I lost sight of the simple pleasures that were right in front of me. Somewhere along the way, I allowed myself to get so caught up with owning “things”that I thought would bring me joy while ignoring the the deeper, more personal things that matter most. Time. Love. Health. Creativity Peace of mind.

Like he always does, my son decided to do one last run-around before we left Grandma’s house and he found himself drawn to a rosemary bush. I had yet another moment because that rosemary bush was the only surviving herb I planted back in the early 2000s. What was once a tiny plant from the Home Depot Garden Center was now a massive four foot wide rosemary bush. In fact, my Mom told me she had to cut half of it because it was growing too big.

Yet, here it was blossoming through the years with no signs of slowing down. Through all the seasons of turmoil, good times, bad times, beginnings and endings of life, this little rosemary bush was thriving just outside her bedroom window.

At the risk of sounding cliche, I immediately saw this as a sign and symbol of our wealth plan because this twenty year old bush is exactly what we envision our money will do. It will grow steadily, it will supply more than we can consume at any given time, require minimal effort and provide for us and our community for years to come.

One of my favorite quotes isthe best things in life aren’t things. Perhaps, me and my Mom both have our son and a humble rosemary plant to thank for reminding us of that all-important message.

Mr. r&R

7 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. I am in a similar situation as an only child of a financially insecure parent. She is at the point now that she is rapidly accruing debt and unfortunately prioritizes material persons over groceries. We understand that we need to take action and plan to move her closer to us soon as we also become first time parents.
    Any specific advise on how to organize a contract/financial plan that is legally binding to set her up with a budget and allocate her disability and social security more responsibly. Also how to search for a counselor who specializes in people with negative money relationships (she has developed the opinion that money is the root of all evil and I feel this perpetuates her situation by causing constant obsession). We have been hesitant in giving financial support (apart from verbal advice- which she occasionally takes) because we can not control her spending decisions- but her situation is becoming dire and we love her and want her to be part of our child’s life.

    • I sooo understand what you’re going through. One of the specific things I would recommend you do is to come to grips with the fact that you may not be able to reverse these behaviors. Not suggesting that you shouldn’t try but it is very very hard and may take a long time. Couple of things i would recommend…1) see if you can get access to her checking and savings. That way you at least have a rough timeline in your head of when she’ll hit rock bottom and the pace of her spending. 2) Try to speak with a friend of hers to learn more about why she may be doing what she’s doing. This may be tied to some back-story you know nothing about and give you some perspective on how delicate the situation is 3) There’s a new book out entitled “Mom and Dad, We need to Talk by Cameron Huddleston. We’ve not read it, but it may be good for you to explore as a resource.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this post and the one about dealing with a financially insecure parent. I feel like the FI community ignores this topic too much and at its own peril. One of the things that we worry about is as boomers age, we think that more hospitals and Medicaid are going to start enforcing filial responsibility laws due to the sheer volume of estates that won’t be able to cover final medical bills. And my MIL is one of those people.

    We tried over the years to have the budget conversation with MIL and FIL, knowing that without some sort of planning that it was going to be ugly when one of them passed. Without going into exactly what I think of my late FIL, that conversation didn’t happen and we found out exactly how bad the hole was when he passed. MIL is now situated and we are comfortable with the steady state amount that we contribute to her living situation. And she stays within her SS budget very well.

    Having said that, what keeps us up at night is the feeling that we’re in a race against the clock to reach FI before one of us has to leave our job to take care of her. She’s 86 and starting to gradually decline both mentally and physically. And the other thing is the possibility of a few expensive end of life medical bills only partially covered by insurance that the hospital decides to sue us under filial responsibility to collect. We’re saving extra as a cushion but our finances couldn’t take a $300,000 hit. So the question is, how much do we plan on saving extra to cover her possible expenses that we could possibly be held responsible for? If we reach our FI number but not the “cover MIL medical expenses” number and one of us needs to leave work to care for her, how much longer does the other one need to work? If we haven’t hit FI and one of us needs to leave work to care for her, what happens then? All of these are rhetorical and are part of our FI planning process, but are definitely adding a giant element of uncertainty to the entire situation.

    Have you guys thought about the possible need to cover medical expenses for your mom? Has that gone into your planning? If it has, can you share or maybe to a later post about it?

    Thanks again, you guys have a new reader.

    • Megan,
      Thank you so much for this comment. We have thought about it and honestly…we don’t have an answer. Just throwing it out there but one of the options may be taking out a loan. At least that way, you have a steady consistent payment and assuming you have good credit, you’ll definitely get a better rate than on a credit card. We’ve also begun to do some research on medical tourism. If there are ways for us to absorb the cost at a deeper discount vs. US prices, it would be much easier to do. For what it’s worth, this one of the benefits of renting OR living in a home that you own free and clear. It would be much more difficult to do if you couldn’t just pick up and go as needed.

      We hope you find a solution that works for you and your aging parents. THAT is definitely one of the conversations we need to have more of in the FI community.

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