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Expert Q&A: Elderly Mom is a Shopaholic

Erica Sandberg

July 14, 2011

QHi Erica,
How can I stop my mom from buying more stuff than she needs on credit? She is 81, lives alone on Social Security and is homebound. She shops from TV and orders a lot of junk that she doesn’t need or even have room for. I know she must be using all of her money and must have a lot of debt now, but she won’t talk to anyone about it, including me. How do I stop the banks or stores from allowing her to do this? — Jena

ADear Jena,
It’s pretty hard to prevent a full-grown adult from doing what is well within her rights to do. And at her age, your mother is most certainly in the position to do as she pleases with her money and credit cards. That is, if she’s not doing anything fraudulent, like running up debt that she knows she can’t pay.

It’s frustrating to see someone you love making damaging financial decisions, however. I get that you want to help, and you may not be totally powerless to do so. Here are some ideas:

First, ensure that all of your mom’s basic needs are being met. The electricity must be on, as she’s ordering from television retailers, but check for other signs of budgetary distress. Is her refrigerator stocked with good food? Are any medications she is supposed to take bought and in order? If all seems well, you can breathe a sigh of relief.

Then think about your mom’s behavior. Has it changed? If she’s never been a compulsive shopper and has become one recently, she could have some health issues that need addressing. Go with her to a doctors’ appointment and discuss your concerns about her new money habits with her physician. Ask Erica

You may also consider taking on financial power of attorney duties. I spoke with Heather Chubb, a life transitions lawyer from Gold River, Calif. about your situation, and she suggested that this could be a good way to make sure your mom is spending within her means and not overcharging. You’d be able to control her financial activities, including managing her bank accounts and credit cards. If you believe it’s appropriate and it’s something you feel prepared to do, ask your mom if she’d like you to help her in this way. Still, don’t be surprised if she declines. “Step into her shoes,” says Chubb. “That’s a huge loss of independence.”

And then there’s the super serious legal action: If your mother truly cannot take care of herself, it’s possible to have her declared mentally incompetent. (Those very words make me shudder.) This would mean that your mom would have to be deemed unable to make sound judgments. Based on your letter, I have no way of knowing if she’s capable of making sane choices, but if she can’t and is in danger, you’ll want to see an attorney who specializes in mental health or guardianship matters. Even then, it’s not a fast or simple process. It requires going to court, a host of mental health evaluations, a legal guardian being set and so on and so forth.

As you’re assisting her with her bills and other documents, I’d also check her mail and make sure she hasn’t been lured into anything fraudulent. Many scams target the elderly, and they often begin with solicitations. “Look for charitable requests, surveys, sweepstakes entries,” says Chubb. “There are a lot of ways they can get her money. Seniors are a huge target.”

Finally, it sounds as though your mom isn’t interested in discussing her finances with you, but try to keep the lines of communication open anyway. Just stay respectful, and know when to back off. Remember, this is her life, her money, her credit. If she has the funds to buy Lalique figurines and they make her happy, that’s her prerogative.