Dear Margo: Of Blood and Turnips

When family and money get messy. Margo Howard’s advice

Of Blood and Turnips

Dear Margo: My mom and I aren’t overly close, but we talk about once a month. She has run out of money, having retired three years after quitting a part-time job, and says she doesn’t want to work anymore, that she has “worked long enough.” She has a small pension and Social Security, and I suggested she apply for food stamps, which she receives.

Mom has asked me to give her $100 a month, and my brother will match whatever I agree to pay her. I told her I would help out when possible, but I couldn’t agree to a monthly payment. We are a middle-income family of four. One child is a college sophomore; the other, a junior in high school soon to be in college. The money I make goes to their schooling and some of our bills.

My brother has two houses in two different states, owns several buildings and exotic cars, and has just a dog, no kids. I do not have the financial means he does. Now my brother is calling my husband at work and trying to talk to him about it. He won’t call me because the last time this issue came up, I told him I would talk directly to Mom because he tries to tell me what to do and that we “owe” it to her. What can I say to them without feeling guilty? — In a Quandary

Dear In: In tough situations where you feel you are not being heard, I recommend writing a letter. In your case, write one letter to your brother, with a copy going to your mother. You will have gone on record, the letter can be reread, no one can interrupt, and it short-circuits any efforts to talk about it.

The gist of the letter should be who can afford what. When you state that you simply don’t have the money to give your mother a set allowance per month, no one can tell you that you do. You might gently point out to your brother that, from all outward appearances, he is the better able to kick in an extra $100 a month. If he chooses not to, that’s his business. As for “owing” people, at this period in your life, the people you owe are your husband and two sons. — Margo, guiltlessly

Henny Penny All the Time

Dear Margo: “Selma” and I have been friends since college. Now we are in our 40s. She was always a drama queen in school, but I assumed it would taper off and tone down. It hasn’t. I find it increasingly wearing to have the most minor events turned into a dramatic monologue or a soap opera. Is there any approach I could take that would calm down some of these one-act plays? I mean, if her cleaning lady doesn’t show up, it is woe-is-me for 10 minutes. — Annoyed

Dear Ann: I am sorry that your friend is Moliere than thou. It sounds as though the dramatic instinct is just woven into her personality. This suggests a lack of balance, perspective and maturity, but there you are. Something has kept you girls friends for 20-plus years, though, so I would try to jolly her out of the next recitative by responding humorously. You might try, “You’re kidding, right?” or remark that her crisis of the moment is certainly on a par with Chernobyl (or the calamity of your choice). I don’t see anything wrong with letting her know you find her overreactions a little odd. — Margo, realistically

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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93 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Violet says:

    I disagree that just because the brother has more money, he has to support the mom. I’m in his position. My sisters had kids. I haven’t, but work my butt off and sacrificed a lot to get where I am. Now, I’m expected to be the only sister who has to pay all of my mom’s expenses. It’s just asuumed I’m supposed to do it, even though I’ve always been the least close to her. They are both her kids, and she chose to have a family. They are equally responsible for mom.

    Forgive the rant but this is a sensitive topic.

    • avatar bamabob says:

      She chose to have a family but she didn’t choose to have a needy mother. Just because they are “equally responsible” for their mother doesn’t mean they are equally capable of providing for her financial needs. If the brother doesn’t wish to kick in, that’s his decision but if he makes $100,000 a year and the sister makes $40,000 a year with one kid in college and another starting soon, saying “you chose to have a kids, so too bad” seems a bit callous. Man up and say, “It’s my money and I don’t want to give it to mom”. This isn’t to judge you for not wanting to be the go-to person for every financial need, but it’s not as simple as splitting the outgo 50/50 when the income isn’t also evenly balanced.

    • avatar htimsr40 says:

      I do not see where LW1 is suggesting her brother HAS TO support Mom, or even SHOULD … just that he has the means to do so if he thinks it is necessary … and apparently he does because HE is suggesting that she spend HER family’s money on Mom … even going so far as to attempt an end-run around LW1 and talking to her husband directly. The better-off sibling has no business suggesting how SHE should spend HER money … that’s the bottom line.

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      Children do not owe their parents a living. Considerate parents don’t ask their kids to provide for them just because the parents feel like they’ve “worked enough”, either.

      The LW is at a place in her life when she simply doesn’t have the cash to do anything but take care of her family – her REAL family – the one she’s raising. No on has the right to rant and rave and demand that she pony up to support a woman who never bothered to support herself in any real way.

      If the brother wants to give money to his mother, great. He does NOT have the right to demand that his sister do the same.

      • avatar Maggie Tenser says:

        The LW’s mother is not her family? I’m not saying that the LW should or shouldn’t help her mother, but love, and the love between parent and child, should impose a duty and a sense of responsibility on both. That’s part of what familial love is.

        • avatar wendykh says:

          No, her mother is now her extended family. Her children and husband are her family and main concern now.

    • avatar mmht says:

      Violet, I understand where you are coming from. Although it is not the same, out of 4 children it is my sister and I who are the ones that are just automatically considered to be the ones to take care of everything for the family. Large gifts, parties, etc., if it is not my sister and I who are suggesting things and then taking care of it (often fronting the money for the bill and more often then not never being paid back) then it doesn’t happen. It is frustrating and causing contention in the family, particularly since my parents for some reason also seem to feel that my sister and I should be the ones to take care of everything and if it doesn’t happen then we are the ones that get the blame and guilt trip.

      As for this particular situation though, you are kind of in the same position as the LW. Both of your families feel that you and the LW need to take on the responsibility for the parent and when both of you say no, they are not listening. The LW brother is using the excuse “we owe her, its 50/50” while your family is using the excuse “You make more money and don’t have children.” Both are pretty crappy excuses and both don’t justify why either of you should take on the responsibility.

    • avatar Maggie Tenser says:

      You and your sister (and the LW and her brother) seem to spend a lot of time tallying up how much is owed by each. E.G. Well YOU love her 23% more than me, so you should be the one paying! No YOU make 23% more than me, so YOU should be paying.

      It’s your mother, and she has a need, there’s no such thing as equally responsible, there’s just whether or not you believe that you have a duty and whether or not you can meet that duty.

      I watched my parents take care of my aged grandmother, while my uncles slacked off and were useless. Was it fair? No. Did we resent them? Yes. Did it have anything to do with whether we helped her? No. She was in need and we had a responsibility to her. That’s it.

      If you don’t feel that duty, that’s fine, that’s between you and your mother. But don’t make your decision on whether to help about your sister and what she ought to be doing.

      • avatar mmht says:

        The thing is Maggie, the LW’s mother is NOT in need; she just refuses to help herself. There is a difference. And I don’t know if your comment was directed at me or Violet I think I can accurately answer for both of us on this. It is not the tallying up of what we do versus what the others do it is the expectation that we MUST do it. Pertaining to my family situation, this is not a situation of need. We are talking about group X-Mas or birthday presents, or parties for milestone birthdays or anniversaries. It is those situations that we should not be the only ones doing things and being the ones to spend our money on and never being paid back. Nor should our parents hold my sister and I to a higher standard then my other sister and brother when they expect these things and we are incapable of pulling it together. It is completely unexcusable and unfair. Now, if my parents needed someone to take care of them of course my sister and I will step up whether my other sister and brother did or not.

        • avatar Artemesia says:

          I hope you have learned to say ‘We planned the Thanksgiving last year, why don’t you and Clyde do it this year; we will be glad to bring a side dish.’ Or to just ignore the hints. And it does sound like group gifts should be out of the question. In some families, group gifts are a shakedown in which some siblings get credit but do nothing. After that happens once, then stop agreeing to group gifts and notch down the expectation of ‘large gifts’ by simply not providing them. When gift giving time rolls around, get something thoughtful but modest. No TVs, cruises etc. Make the moochers actually come and have to say what they expect. (at which point you can look oddly surprised by the presumption)

          I can’t imagine feeling guilty about not meeting greedy expectations like that.

          • avatar mmht says:

            Its amazing how even as an adult parents can make you feel terrible b/c they really wanted a surprise party for their 60th birthday and thought for certain their children would do that for them. And how they can’t imagine after everything they’ve done for you, you weren’t capable of pulling pulling something even a little small together. It doesn’t really matter that sister refused to return phone calls and brother doesn’t financially contribute, its what YOU didn’t do.

            Yes its selfish but they certainly know how to play the guilt card.

          • avatar KL says:

            MMHT — I’m going to agree to Artemesia here. I agree with you it’s unfair, but so is life — so much of life is unfair. All you can do is set down boundaries with which you’re comfortable and be willing to accept the consequences, even if that is bs and unfair guilt trips. That’s just how it is — you can’t make someone treat you fairly. All you can do is limit their ability to take advantage of you or make you feel guilty. Choose your battles and sleep well at night with your decisions.

          • avatar Ellie M says:

            KL, that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. Keep it coming!

    • avatar blueelm says:

      Blood out of stone. If she doesn’t have the money, she doesn’t have it. What grandmother would care so little for her grandkids, by the way? “Sorry mom, but I’d rather my kids go to college. Best of luck!”

    • avatar impska says:

      I agree. My husband I are the wealthier siblings in our families – it is often suggested that we pick up the bill for various family members in need by people who really have no actual knowledge of our finances or our budget.

      If I were in the LW’s position, I would tell my mother to get a job. She needs an extra 200 bucks a month? Go work at the grocery store as a cashier. There’s nothing to suggest that she is incapable.

      They may be equally responsible for mom, but I don’t really think either one of them has much responsibility.

    • avatar mjd4 says:

      Most people work hard for their money. Some don’t. Either way, I haven’t noticed a direct correlation between how hard someone works and how much money they have, so that argument kinda rubs me the wrong way.

      As for LW’s choosing to have a family, it may be unfair, but “I’m spending the money on my kids’ college” is a better excuse than “I’m spending the money on another Jaguar.”

      • avatar mjd4 says:

        Just to be clear, I am not saying the brother is obligated to be the one to support mom. I just don’t think he is any less obligated because he worked harder or because he had enough sense not to have children.

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      Difficult topic. I am the one with four kids , but married well. My brother barely holds a job most of the time (despite his college degree & high intelligence) and has one son whom he has visitation. He loves to buy things well out of his means. He has been like that since a kid. I am the frugal one. :)
      I am following my parents lead on this one. In their will, they are planning to split everything equally. 50/50 regardless of how well off with one of us is or how many kids we have. They are actually trying to figure out how to make things fair since my kids will eventually receive a quarter of my half whereas his kid will receive all of his half. They recently gave him money for a property (when he had a job). They have changed their will to reflect he will get that much less. I believe their take is he needs to be responsible for himself.

      • avatar mmht says:

        Lym, I hate to sound nasty but from what you described, I doubt your nephew/niece is going to get a dime from your parents. Your brother would have it all spent well before he dies to leave it to him/her.

  2. avatar toni says:

    It sounds like there is also some legitimate resentment that mom hasn’t been financially responsible and frankly is a mooch. Lw1 decline wo guilt! The posters are correct in that more shouldn’t be expected of the brother just because no kids – but he is the one doing the pressuring. And you can get them both to zip it by including in that letter if the subject is raised again, you will be subsidizing – ahem giving! – not another cent.

    Ps LOVE moliere than thou!!!

    • avatar mayma says:

      And when mom gets even older and less able to care for herself? “Zip it, you mooch” isn’t going to work. LW1 can decline now, I suppose, but this problem isn’t going away. The family needs a long-term plan, ideally with everyone trying to behave with some decorum and flexibility.

      • avatar mmht says:

        Mayma, for once I think we are both in agreement!

      • avatar Maggie Tenser says:

        Exactly. The thing about old age, is that it’s not something a person recovers from. Mom is not going to “get better.” Even if she doesn’t feel the drive to help now, what does the LW plan to have happen when her mother needs to move into assisted living? When she needs regular medical care?

        She should hash this out with her brother and mother when the stakes are relatively low, rather than when her mother is desperate and emotions are high.

        • avatar impska says:

          She should tell her mom to get a job and work as long as possible and put aside the 100 bucks a month for when her mother actually needs help (if she feels inclined to help her).

          OR – see how much a long term care insurance plan costs and she and her brother should put their money toward that.

      • avatar wendykh says:

        Honestly, why do they need a long term plan? it is NOT a child’s responsibility to care for the parent. The parent should do this themselves. There are care homes for the poor and that’s where my parents are going if they don’t get their shit together and make arrangements. I would never dream of burdening my children with my late in life plans!

  3. avatar ch says:

    LW#1…. imagine the guilt you will have if you do not do what you know you need to for your husband and children.

    Under no circumstances do you “owe” your mother anything. There is nothing to fill guilty about.

    You are being blackmailed into handing money over that you really can’t afford. And heaven forbid if you need that “extra” money should something come up within your own immediate family!

    Your brother is harassing your husband at work and needs to be told to stop. If you want to ensure that good relations continue, then don’t call a lawyer. I’m being serious.

    You can certainly write a letter to both your mother with a copy to your brother explicitly stating your position. DO NOT ANYWHERE on that letter indicate in any way shape or form that you are willing to send money, never mind how much.

    When a family gets into money brangling like this and does not recognize that you have your own financials to mind, it can escalate into ugliness.

    If you feel you can send your mom something, you can certainly do so out of the goodness of your heart whenever you feel you can. This can be supplementing with a small check, or pre-bought things she might need.

    How much money your brother has does not matter.

    The focus is on what you need to do for your own immediate family.

    Your mother made a choice. She has no right to ask you to “pay” for it.

    Be kind. Be firm.

    -Just paid for son through 4 years at Stanford, helping to pay for 3 in law school, and daughter starting college in 2 months.

    My kids know they don’t “owe” us anything. When they start talking that way, we tell them to “pay it forward” to their own kids.

  4. avatar wishuponafallingstar says:

    I have never understood this mindset where when the child grows up, he abandons his parents. People will support their children for a long time (case in point, this letter writer has a child in college and is supporting him/her), but they won’t support their parents in their old age. You don’t just pay it forward to the children, you pay it back to the parents too! I guarantee you that if she had had a fifth child, that child would not be out on the street or put up for adoption just because of their income level. The family would find a way to support that child. In the same way, the mother is another family member that deserves to be supported. You don’t choose your mother but you don’t choose your children either! You may choose whether or not to have the child, but even if it’s an accident, you’re responsible for that child. That’s the same thing with a parent, you’re responsible whether you like it or not, someone had to give birth to you!

    I don’t agree with the brother pressuring her to pay beyond her means, but she is also wrong in assuming that since he is richer, he should support the mom. He worked hard for his money. If he worked hard to, say, become a businessman with a six figure salary, while she went into something less lucrative with a five figure salary that’s her own fault! Not that there’s anything wrong with a less lucrative field, but the point is that she made certain financial decisions to get to where she is today. The responsibility towards one’s parents doesn’t end at age 18 when you leave for college, it ends when you (or your parents) die! Both siblings should contribute whatever they can afford to the mother– he shouldn’t be telling her how much to give, and he shouldn’t be competing/matching. It’s probably better for each sibling not to know how much the other is contributing.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      I agree with you completely.

      $100 a month is $3.33 per day. I do not believe that LW1 cannot afford an additional $3.33 expense per day. I’m not one of those people who will tell someone that “you have to do this… because she’s YOUR MOTHER!” You’ll either do it or you won’t, and you’ll justify either course of action somehow. I have a feeling it will be the latter, if you’re looking for your “rich” brother to take on all the responsibility. But consider this—you may find yourself in a similar situation one day, and it will be a shame if you’ve set such a precedent and no one is there to help YOU. It’s also going to be ironic if your mother ends up having an estate, and you’re left out in the cold.

      LW2: Yeah, been there and dumped that. Some friends make good drama, and some make bad. Decide if you’ve seen the same episode too many times and how much more you can stomach.

      • avatar mac13 says:

        David, I am going to agree with you. Less than $4 a day? If the LW is that poor, her kids should have some financial assistance toward their college education. Give, or not give, she can make her own mind up but what she describes doesn’t sound like she “can’t afford” to do so.

      • avatar martina says:

        David, you’d be amazed what $100 a month can mean to someone with a tight income.  I have not been on a vacation in years, go out to a restaurant for dinner about once every four months, bring lunch to work, make my own coffee to go and do not go out to recreational places that cost money.  I also have a child starting college. There is no way that I would be able to give my mother $100 a month,  How much more do I have to sacrifice because my mother feels that she has worked long enough. Not that she is incapable of working but because she doesn’t want to anymore.  Now, if my mother was still working and couldn’t make ends meet, I’d find a way to help her out but, I’m not going to support a retirement she can’t afford.  My mother wouldn’t expect me to do that either. 

        I think it was poor of the brother to say that he would “match” what the sister could give.  So, if the sister can only give $25 and he can give more, he’s only going to give $25?  Thank God my family is not like that. He should offer what he can afford and she should do what she can. I have a sister who can afford to give more and does because she knows she can and I can’t. Those who make more money shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the entire burden but they also shouldn’t base their giving on what the lower income person can give. You have to wonder what precedence this mother showed her children that it sounds like her son is giong to give only if his sister will.

        • avatar David Bolton says:

          Sweetie, I lived for FIVE YEARS on $8.58/hr. Don’t lecture me about stretching a dollar. People buy what they want, when they want, and this is a scenario that’s far more common than you might believe. Obviously there are people who can barely afford to keep a roof over their head. There’s also people who can’t afford $100/mo because they have cable, internet, a coffee habit, a cigarette habit, shopping to do, and new restaurants to try. What these people mean is that they don’t have $100/mo to spend “on someone else.”

          Granted, I get that LW1 isn’t close to her mother and therefore doesn’t feel responsibility for her support. That’s fine, and like I said earlier I’m not one of these people who would try to guilt her into it because it’s her mother. However, she wants SOMEONE to take care of her—that someone being her brother, simply because he’s better off. That’s not right—and when the wheel eventually comes full-circle (as it will), I wonder if LW1 will expect her brother to take care of HER, because he’s got the money, and she doesn’t.

          Oh, and MessyOne—your view of what constitutes family (REAL family), may work for you, but many people actually consider their fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and others to be REAL family as well.

          • avatar carol grzonka says:

            lw’s mom has to be in her 60’s, having collected ss for several years.  with a phone call once a month (and no visits that lw mentions), how does she KNOW that her mom is just in the way of ‘mooching’? she might be trying to put a good face on things. i know several older people who won’t admit to physically decompensating, because it’s embarassing.  my mom was in a wheelchair and very insistent that she was entirely independent.  i tend to answer the courtesy query with a smile and ‘just fine’ when all i want is a hot bath and a heating pad and a pain killer. and i had heart attack last month.  i work, but, many days i feel i’ve ‘worked  long enough’.  while i would never tell anyone what to do with their money, i can tell you that most of the time compassion is not misplaced and you need to be more aware of the circumstances before you cast doubt.  btw, medicare mostly doesn’t pay for rx, so medicaid should be considered if problems stem from medical costs. 

          • avatar c