Photo: Robert Trachtenberg
Like so people I have talked to through the years, Mary lives a double life. At work she is a dynamo: The staffing company she launched with a partner three years ago is doing so well that she pockets a salary of almost $140,000. Yet at home, her life isn't nearly as successful: Thanks to a divorce and a long period of unemployment, she is saddled with close to $50,000 in credit card debt and has no emergency savings. At age 57, she has just $33,000 in her retirement account.
Mary asked for financial help. But I quickly surmised that what Mary has isn't a money problem—it's a mother problem. She can't say no to her two daughters, and she repeatedly sacrifices her long-term security for their desires. Blinding love that leads to poor decisions is something all parents must be on guard for, but letting your kids drain the Bank of Mom is even more unacceptable when they are 24- and 26-year-old employed adults!
Changing how she interacts with her daughters will be tough for Mary. But I have no doubt that she's up to the challenge—she has overcome plenty in her life. Married at 22, Mary made the difficult decision to initiate a divorce after 27 years (and took on the marital credit card debt, partly out of guilt). A few years later, during the financial crisis, she lost her job. When the owner of the condo she was renting decided to sell the unit, Mary couldn't find a landlord willing to offer her a lease, so she slept on the floor of her sister's dining room for months.
Dark times indeed. But Mary is a fighter who battled back. It takes guts to launch a business in a severe recession, and talent to make it fly. Mary had both. Yet her financial rebound is only a partial success.
"I'm ashamed of how poorly I've managed what I've earned," she told me. "I should be enjoying life, but I am so stressed about bills that I can't relax. The worst part is that I've been a poor role model, and my daughters are picking up my bad money habits."
When Mary started her business, she moved into an apartment near work and agreed to rent her home to her eldest daughter and two roommates. But her daughter always flakes out on paying her share of the rent. She also hasn't lived up to her promise to reimburse the $440 her mom pays each month to cover her car loan and insurance. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old daughter has a job and lives with Mary, yet pays no rent and seems content to let Mom handle the food and utility bills. No surprise, then, that Mary can't make ends meet, and is actually using her credit cards for groceries. This from a woman with a fabulous six-figure salary!
Next: Suze Orman's advice for Mary