Why I won’t take money from my parents: cw: Captain Awkward level family stuff

This post sounds crazy.  Reading it, I keep thinking that a bunch of people must be thinking, “Gee I wish I had her problems.”  Or why WON’T she just take money.  Or lots of us grow up without spending a lot, why is she complaining.  And I don’t really have any answers.  I would probably need therapy to sort through things and I’d far rather just forget than revisit.

For a long time, I had a very powerful post* in drafts about what it was like growing up with a fear of money.  Of not having money.  Of being yelled at for spending money. Of parents fighting because my mother occasionally spent money from her salary. I realize now, it was more about being controlled with money than some general money fear.  I deleted it because every time I looked at it the fear would return and I’d start to cry.  I decided… I’d rather forget.  If I’m forgetting the good stuff, maybe the bad stuff will dim with time too if I don’t keep going down those neural pathways.

My personality is such that I tend to be present and future-focused.  I don’t like dwelling on the past (unless reminiscing about DH is involved).

But sometimes I think about things.

To preface:  I need to say that my household growing up was very much like Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, but without buy-in from the family.**  So I grew up washing dishes and hanging up laundry (women’s work) and freezing in my room above the garage in the winter because I wasn’t allowed to have my heat set above 50 even if I couldn’t sleep (I’d often sleep in my mom’s snowsuit under the covers in the winter and didn’t stop wearing a hat to bed until I was over 30) and sweltering in the summer basement because we weren’t allowed to use the air conditioning and feeling guilty about every single cent.  I’d neglect to mention class trips and pictures and so on because my mom would want me to be able to participate and I knew that would result in a screaming fight about me again.  Ugh… I need to stop or I’ll get back to that post I deleted however many years ago.  And I really do want to forget.

During graduate school, I think I’ve mentioned before, my father gifted me with some then worthless PG&E stock– it had gone bankrupt after spitting out some dividends that he had not given me.  But I had to pay taxes on the appreciated value and the dividends at the time he gifted it to me, which he hadn’t told me about, but happened before the bankruptcy.  I found out about this at tax time.  DH and I were each making 18K and our rent was 18K and he’d brought 10K of high interest college debt into the marriage.  We were scrimping and saving so much I’d lost my ability to eat meat without throwing up.  An additional few thousand dollar tax bill on stocks we couldn’t sell because they were worthless (and I didn’t know how) was hugely stressful.  Eventually I got him to give me the dividend checks to cover the tax bill.  But it wasn’t fun.  (If I’d known I’d had these stocks, I’d have sold some before they went bankrupt instead of borrowing money from my mom for a deposit and last month’s rent on our first apartment.  But I had no idea.)  My father’s name is still on the PG&E stock in addition to mine, though I’ve managed to gain control of the web-page for tax purposes.  (Also, PG&E is bankrupt again, though we were getting dividends for several years so I no longer feel complete hatred for it, I mean other than the way it kept setting California on fire so I could get those dividends).

At some point I got old enough and found out I had a matured American Century Trust fund that he’d started as a tax dodge in the 80s.  I didn’t need the money and it had dropped in value and it was a huge pain to finally get his name off of it years later.  So… we occasionally pay taxes on it when it randomly decides to sell and rebuy itself.  This used to be stressful, but now we have enough money to handle it.  I would just sell it because it’s an over-priced S&P 500 Index but I am greatly concerned about the cost-basis as well as having to pay capital gains.  My current game-plan is to leave it to our children after our death.  Prior to this, I’d earmarked it to pay for DH’s relatives’ kids’ college, but I think we’re going to be able to cash flow that unless more of their kids decide to go to 4 year schools.

And then there was a small amount of other stocks, maybe 5K of tech companies that went out of business, or a few shares of AOL that got bought and sold by a million companies over time.  Figuring out the cost-basis for these has been an occasional nightmare, but at least we got to take losses for tax purposes.

Around the time that we finished graduate school, after we’d bought a house and gotten grownup salaries, and my sister graduated college, my father offered to give us stocks up to the annual gift tax amount.  I said no.  My sister said sure.

Throughout the years, he seemed increasingly upset that we wouldn’t take his money.  I’d say we didn’t need it.  They should spend it on travel or a house in Sacramento or charity.  The one time we asked him to donate to DC1’s school on our behalf he seemed happy.  I would suggest that if he was so interested in skipping over the inheritance tax that we’d be happy to let them fill up the 529s.  But he was never interested– just wanted to give me stocks directly.

He just sent an email with a lengthy rundown of all of my sister’s investments from the gift tax each year, including how they’re invested and how much they made in the past year.  Apparently it’s over $650K now, in a variety of stocks for single companies, and can they give their usual $30K to her again?  He cc’d me.  I don’t know why.  If I’d wanted the money I guess I could have had it, but I didn’t, and we don’t need it.  We have our own money.

So much of what I’ve done with my life has been because I want to be in control of myself.  I want to be in control of my body temperature and what I eat and how I spend my time.  I want to never feel trapped.  Money is a means of control.  I don’t want to control other people and I don’t ever want other people to control me.  So… I chose a lucrative profession.  We got rid of debt.  We saved and saved and saved.  We lived below our means, but always in a way that we both had buy-in.  Yes, it was hard starting out, but we didn’t have much income either and DH was happy to get rid of those loans.

As we’ve gotten more money, we’ve loosened up.  Money stopped being a source of guilt many years ago– once we had enough of an emergency fund that a job loss wouldn’t set us back too badly.

I read that email my father cc’d me on and thought, thank God I didn’t let him give me any money.  He’s controlling the stocks.   He’s telling her what taxes she has to pay or what losses she gets to take.  He could probably take the money back if she ever displeased him.  Or if he disagreed with how she spent it, if she ever sold those stocks.  What a nightmare.

There’s many reasons that I use only index funds (other than the stocks he’s given us).  The fact that they’re less risky and less time intensive are the main reasons… but it’s also really nice to not have to worry about them going under and having to find their cost-basis.  I’m glad one of the recent previous administrations made a law that companies have to keep track of cost-basis, but that’s no help for stocks that were bought when Brown and Company was still a private entity.

So… I don’t take money from my parents, not for the noble reasons of me wanting them to enjoy the fruits of their labors.  That’s what I told myself for years.  And not just because taking money from my father has always been a huge hassle (and we always find out about it after we no longer have use for it), though that is still definitely a part of it.  But because I still associate my parents’ money with control and being yelled at and about.   The money I have access to now is mine and my husband’s.  We earned it.  We saved it.  We control it.  We can spend or save it as we like.  We built a peaceful life where money is a tool that buys goods and services but isn’t used to create guilt.

I have no questions.

*This post is much more jumbled.  And I’m sure there’s people who are thinking #firstworldproblems about this post who would have had sympathy for that post.  But I’d rather not be brave than be told I’m brave.

**To be completely fair the rest of us were allowed heat with our showers or baths, so long as we didn’t take long showers or fill up the tub too much.  Instead of quick cold showers like Jacob, my father generally only does sponge baths unless he’s at a hotel where he takes advantage and leaves a ring around the tub.  Oh lord, now I’m doing that flashback thing and getting yelled at for wasting water while washing dishes in my mind (because even though my sister and I had to wash the dishes, we had to do it his way except we could never get it exactly like he wanted).  Maybe I should delete this post too.

28 Responses to “Why I won’t take money from my parents: cw: Captain Awkward level family stuff”

  1. Michael N Nitabach Says:

    With a few variations, I could’ve written this post. My parents use money to control other people, and one of the greatest things I ever did in my life was to completely sever all financial relationship w my parents as soon as I was able. I have a decent relationship w my parents bcs they now grasp that they can’t possibly exert the slightest bit of control over me & yet I still choose to spend time w them. Of course & obviously, those family members who are financially dependent on them my parents always doubt whether they actually love them or just pretend bcs they have no choice. This is the essential paradox of using financial (or other) need to control people whose love you seek: you never actually feel confidence in such love & make yourself miserable w doubt.

  2. Carol Says:

    This is similar to what I experienced growing up. My father was slightly less extreme but just as controlling. Mom didn’t buy into the money side as much as Dad, but certainly bought into the controlling part. When my husband and I stopped accepting their $$ they were so mad, because just like you experienced they were using it to try to control our decisions. I still have some issues around spending, but like you they’ve gotten better over time. I know that was hard to post, but at least one person out here on the internet found it familiar, for what it’s worth.

  3. independentclause Says:

    It may be a first world problem, but we live in the first world (for now), and your sharing makes other people feel less alone!

  4. Steph Says:

    I also have issues around accepting money and help from my parents, and like you I feel bad complaining about it. They weren’t terribly controlling about it as a kid, but as an adult, it’s become a tool to “help” me like I’m still their dependent. It took me a long time to gain independent control of my bank accounts and investments made in my name. The only solution that makes me feel better is that when my Dad forcibly gives me money (he deposits it in my hometown bank account without telling me ahead of time), I donate it to causes he hates politically.

    Abuse and control aren’t first-world problems. That paternalistic way of controlling money you’ve “given away” is also rife throughout philanthropy here and abroad. People who haven’t experienced that kind of controlling behavior don’t easily get it. Your feelings about this are completely understandable and valid.

  5. Nanani Says:

    Financial abuse and physical abuse (forcing kids to freeze and not allow them to wash comfortably fits) are not mere firstworldproblems.

    Have some internet stranger hugs.

    Good on you for escaping and knowing exactly what pits not step in re- poisoned gifts.

  6. Middle class Says:

    I could not say no to that much money! I’m confused though how your dad can offer so much in stocks and yet made you guys suffer in the cold when you were kids. Did he have money and was insanely cheap??

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Not really sure. He benefited a lot from putting every penny into investments. He also benefited for a while in being able to sublet a rent-controlled apartment. There was an inheritance from my Bonmama, but I don’t know the details. My understanding is that his wealth really took off during the dot com boom (and not having to pay hardly anything for my college that they’d saved for, though they did have to pay considerably more for my sister’s).

  7. Debbie M Says:

    You say, “our rent was 18K.” I don’t understand this. If it’s a mistake, feel free to fix it and delete this comment.

  8. Debbie M Says:

    At first I was thinking a better title might be “I won’t take white elephant gifts from my parents.” But by the end I could see this is really a similar theme as that story where one guy tells his friend that if only his friend could learn to do what the king wants, he could be rich, and the friend says he prefers to learn how not to be rich so he doesn’t have to do what the king wants.

    I’m so sorry about these terrible parts of your childhood (and current life). The worst that happened around my house is that my dad would get annoyed that my mom would ration food so we could stay on budget. She learned to just plate the food in the kitchen rather than telling him how much he was allowed to have.

  9. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I was viewed as a golddigger when I was very broke and dating people who were well supported by their parents. Those unwarranted attitudes really warped my ability to accept money from any parent-type person but I’m glad that I made it such a firm stance that we’d make it on our own that now.

    Money gifts are only accepted on our terms and we won’t cave to pressure on how it’s used or where it’s put. There was a lot of pressure for a while. There are still some remaining minor complications that we can’t cut off entirely but largely I’m entirely in sympathy with you – if the gifts come with strings, NO THANK YOU.

  10. xykademiqz Says:

    Reading this post gave me some unpleasant flashbacks (e.g., how my mom couldn’t spend anything from her own salary on herself without a major blowout, so she’d buy clothes and hide them and then introduce them later as old stuff). My parents, esp mom, are more in the camp of counting my money than ever giving me anything. I’d worked through teen years and beyond and always had to contribute to rent and utilities; I’d had to pay back the money for ticket and rent that I first brought with me to the US and have “lent” money (tens of k) to my sister and father for their apartments (I’ve never really expected to get anything back from them, tbh). Money *is* control. That’s part of the reason why husband and I have separate accounts; we have joint savings but separate checkings. After how I’ve seen my father treat my mom, no one is *ever* overseeing and having opinions on how I spend what I’ve earned.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I would rather be single than have to hide purchases from a spouse. It seems crazy to me that anybody would put up with that if they don’t have to (I am so glad to be an adult! With my own job!). DH and I were going to have separate accounts but it turns out we don’t need them so long as he has an allowance.

  11. SP Says:

    This post was fascinating, but I’m sorry you have had to go through these mental struggles. My parents have had their own money issues in the past, and my dad did indeed involve me in some stupid decisions when I was quite young. But they’ve never tried to use money to control me or each other. I also have never really had to think about whether gifts come with strings, because we don’t get gifts of any significance. I can’t imagine turning down the tax exclusion amount (or being offered it!), but I also didn’t have the experiences you did. I can see why you did it.

    Do you and your sister ever talk about it? It is interesting to me that you arrived at two different conclusions.

  12. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    We have not other than acknowledging the wealth position when figuring out how to allocate her 401k. But why wouldn’t she take it? Most of this time I’ve told myself and my parents that we didn’t need the money and they should spend it on themselves or donate to people who do need it. And I’ve told DH and myself that we don’t need the hassle. She’s younger and enjoys world travel on top of her massive political activism—she has more use for money.

    Though I think like me she just ignores this money as if it doesn’t exist which is probably smart. I don’t know what she does tax-wise. (I hate doing taxes so much that DH took it over as his main financial responsibility year 1 of our marriage.)

  13. Bardiac Says:

    This is really interesting, and more than a little sad. I wonder if, like mine, your parents grew up in the Great Depression? Because my Mom was anxious about money for a long time, and only after I was an adult did she mention that her family had been homeless. I knew they’d had hard times, but I hadn’t realized how hard. (I probably still don’t.)
    As far as gifts or whatever, my parents have always been focused more on helpful and kind than controlling.
    But: when I was a young adult, my parents occasionally would lend money to one or another relative. Mostly, they were paid back and nothing was said. But there was one who never paid back. And my Mom, especially, spoke bitterly about her, and had little respect for her. When I was moving after grad school (across country to a job), I asked my folks for a loan and received it. It wasn’t much, mostly for moving and setting up. And once my salary kicked in, I duly paid back in monthly chunks until it was paid back (maybe six months). Years later, after my Dad was dead, my Mom told me that it had hurt his feelings that I’d paid them back. (I never quite understood that, but there was no way I wouldn’t, given what I’d heard from my Mom about the other relative!) (Later, when I bought my first house, my folks gave me a gift to help with moving in expenses; they predicted I’d need more than I realized, and they were right!

  14. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    Not crazy. Somewhat familiar, though in my family we all understood that my dad was deeply affected by growing up as the child of a single mother during the Great Depression; and for a time we really didn’t have much money, so it wasn’t just that he was a tightwad. Now that he’s in assisted living, the shoe is on the other foot, in that his kids have control of his money and insist on spending it for his comfort.

    I think I agree with xykademiqz that money IS control. Some people are better able to deal with it than others; different birth-order kids have different experiences in the same family; some people are okay with “playing games” and using money to keep track, whereas others see the “games” as control. At least, that’s what I observe in my family.

  15. Kathleen Says:

    Don’t run yourself down by labeling it as first world problems. What you feel is deep, legitimate, and justified. And your dad apparently isn’t done with using money to try to control you or make you feel bad: otherwise, he wouldn’t have cc’ed you on that message. What he wants is for you to see your sister’s total and feel badly for not cooperating with what he wants. He sent that message to emphasize that he thinks he’s right and always has been and that he thinks that you’re wrong. He’s trying to rub it in.

    It’s a jerk move.

    I would do exactly what you did. Be glad that you’ve insulated yourself and your family from him the way that you have. Unless you’re struggling in a way that you–thank goodness– are not, no amount of money is worth dealing with the level of complication and unhappiness he could dump into your lives if you were accepting what he wants to give.

    (I’m sitting here feeling mad and militant on your behalf. Seriously, you are completely justified in doing what you do and feeling the way you feel.)

  16. CG Says:

    Wow. That sounds like a hard way to grow up and totally alien to me as I had parents who were both responsible and generous with money. I think the last financial support they gave me was to pay for our wedding and there was no nonsense about we’re paying so you have to do this or that. My sister, however, is a different story. She’s not able to support herself and my parents did and do use their financial support for her to try to get her to make better choices (and arguably she has made some bad ones). But it’s not great for their relationship, unfortunately.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      To be fair, they paid for the wedding and there was no drama around money. It was super low key and I kept costs low. Also my mom did the hiring of the caterer which was the main cost.

      We also got to go to whatever college we wanted but that’s mainly because when my father suggested reneging on that promise when I was a junior my mom seriously threatened divorce. I ended up not costing much anyway, but my sister was pricey.

      Also it was never so much that we were given money and told how or how not to spend it as it was getting yelled at after the fact.

  17. becca Says:

    This is… so…. weird. My parents never gave me much money, just sometimes more or less at random during college/grad school (and sort of after). I’d mention I had a need and what I was doing to make the budget work and they’d volunteer some. I don’t think I ever asked. Sometimes I said no, sometimes I just asked what it would mean for their budget. They did insist on buying me a nicer futon mattress, explaining that when they came to visit and I volunteered my bed they didn’t want to feel *too* bad.
    But my parents were frugal and made some parenting choices that were frugal. And I think my Dad was proud of how good I was at basic budgeting, comparison shopping, and the big stuff (i.e. choosing to go to community college and then a state school; living in the co-op instead of the dorms. I was a “cheap date”, and my Dad told me this as a compliment. Which sounds weird and maybe bad, but really wasn’t. My Dad was the oldest of five kids, neither of my parents came from a lot of money- being able to do more with less, mostly by opting out of status culture, was integral to their own happiness).
    Anyway as a family we certainly had other issues. For example, as a teenager I fought with my parents because I’d open my windows in the dead of winter to get some fresh air, and they were concerned about paying for heat. I told them to stop smoking if they wanted me to not be able to breath. But man. I loved the cold when I was sleeping.

    So I don’t necessarily relate to what you went though. But I will say, I think you should work to build your relationship with your kids to be something different. I suspect you’ve done a lot better job raising them with less fighting over money, and that will work out much better in the long run.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m more worried about our kids not knowing how to comparison shop at the grocery store than the other way around, though that is why they have allowances. DC2 is probably learning that lesson better than DC1 since zie is into buying candy (requiring regular decisions about opportunity costs), whereas DC2 just kind of stockpiles money until there’s something largish zie wants.

      I don’t think it’s actually that hard to not yell at our kids? So… not that much work?

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