According to his death certificate, my dad died of myocardial infarction, otherwise known as a heart attack.
His health had been deteriorating for some time, so it wasn’t a total surprise.
He gained weight and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He had two bypass surgeries — one triple, one quadruple. It wasn’t hard to understand why he had heart problems.
His diet was unhealthy; he didn’t get enough exercise; and he was constantly under stress.
We thought there wasn’t much any of us could have done. In retrospect, there was one area where I might have been able to help, though at the time I didn’t think about it in those terms. His financial health deteriorated more than his physical health, and that was one of the primary sources of stress.
It Wasn’t His Heart Alone That Killed Him — It Was His Debt
My dad racked up credit card debt faster than a NASCAR driver at Daytona, and he never could get his spending habits in check. Just as you can spot the indicators of heart trouble, there were plenty of signs something was wrong with his finances.
He took cash advances on one card to make payments on another. He took out a second mortgage just to make minimum payments on his credit cards, all of which had interest rates in the 20 percent to 30 percent range. He constantly worried about how he would scrape together enough money to pay his bills.
I saw the stress of his debt weighing on him. I have no doubt much of the reason he gained so much weight in the first place was because he was gravitating toward unhealthy comfort food to help him forget the stress, and the emotional drain from constantly worrying about money robbed him of the initiative to exercise.
One of my biggest regrets, which I shared in my book “Soldier of Finance,” is that I never had the courage to confront my dad about his debt. I think somehow I believed things would just work themselves out. They didn’t.
If you know someone who is struggling with debt, there are signs that you can watch for — and things you can do. Here are three indications that they are headed for unnecessary and dangerous stress.
1. They’re Constantly Fretting About How They Will Pay Bills
You can tell when it has become a problem for someone you know. For one thing, it creeps into their conversation. They begin making comments that allude to their desperation. Watch for other signs. I can remember walking into my dad’s house and seeing a list of credit card debts next to his computer. It was clearly on his mind. Worry is difficult to hide.
2. They Use Credit to Pay for Credit
If someone is using one credit card to pay the minimum payment on another, or taking out a cash advance on a card to make a payment, there are multiple problems. First, making minimum payments doesn’t usually reduce the balance on a card in any significant way. The lion’s share goes to paying interest. By using another card to make the payment, you’re only adding to your total debt, making future minimum payments even higher. It’s a no-win cycle.
3. They Frequently Borrow Money — Sometimes From You
When they ask, it always sounds like an opportunity for you to help. The loan will solve their problems and take the pressure off by allowing them to consolidate their bills into one payment, which will allow them to return your money to you. The problem is that it never works out that way.
I once loaned my dad $8,000 to help him pay off some debt. Not only did he run up new debt as fast as he paid off the old, but when he realized that he couldn’t pay me back, he took out a life insurance policy with me as the beneficiary. Instead of eliminating debt, he added another monthly payment.
If a close friend or relative exhibits these symptoms, there are things you can do. Here are three suggestions to get you started:
1. Gently Confront Them With Your Concerns
Do your best to keep from sounding judgmental by emphasizing that you are concerned about the stress their financial habits put on your relationship, and more importantly, the danger to their health. It won’t be easy, but if you really care about them, be honest with them.
2. Stop Enabling
When my grandmother passed away, both my dad and I inherited some money. True to form, dad wanted to borrow my share to pay off his debts and planned to pay me back in monthly installments. My girlfriend — who later became my wife — confronted me the way I should have confronted my dad. “It won’t help him, and it won’t help you,” she said bluntly.
She was right, and I knew it. It was the first time I ever told my dad no, and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but it had to be done, for his sake and for mine. Learn to say no. Don’t even agree to co-sign a loan. You’ll only add to the problem.
3. Offer Real Help (Not Loans)
This might be as involved as sitting down with them and helping organize bills, develop a plan for debt reduction and help them stick to it. But at the very least you can introduce them to a financial adviser to help them get things under control. Above all, offer your encouragement and support. Changing lifelong habits is never easy, but it can be done.
I wish I had spoken to my dad early on. I never did, but I believe I have learned from both of our mistakes. I hope you will, too.
Don’t wait or sit back silently, hoping something will change. Become an agent of change. When you see the warning signs, speak up.
Hi, there are so many familiarities in your story and that of my Dads. Unfortunately, a huge heart attack took my Dad away from it all.
We did confront my Dad, only several weeks before, but as he was too proud we never fully knew what his full financial story was – other than that he was using us and credit to pay credit – and us – back each minute th only to borrow it again. That and a pending termination in his employment due to genuine ill health – they’d refused to make him redundant or retire I. I’ll health grounds – must have made each day a dark day.
Sadly, I am left sorting out finances, and can see that this perceived unsurmountable debt was actually a small amount and if only we could have helped him get in top of it I feel things may be very different. I am now left with a constant sadness of how much turmoil and unhappiness he must have felt in the last few months of his life.
I hope someone reads this and it helps them to speak openly about finances before it’s too late xx
Are we related? I’ve always maintained that stress from their financial mistakes killed my parents early (63 for dad, 70 for mom)!
At least I learned some valuable lessons about what NOT to do with money – guess you did too.
Thanks for sharing – good to know I’m not the only boomer out there who had to learn good financial sense on my own!
Later – Leah
P.S. Congrats on your #17 ranking in the FA blogs list – you’re making a difference.
Thanks for sharing your story.
All very good advice, but the person has to be willing to admit they have a problem. My husband and I know enough not to add to the mountain of debt his father has racked up, but he denies there’s a problem; he’s always just one deal away from making everything fine again. It’s probably less than a year from the time when my in-laws will lose their house and we kids dread the day we have to figure out who is going to open their home to them. The mom is sweet and would be welcome anywhere, but she has stood by him and defended their house-flipping business decisions, as in denial as he is. They have no tangible income, are in their 60’s with no savings and, as far as we can tell, several hundred thousand dollars worth of debt. We wanted them to declare bankruptcy a couple of years ago and get a fresh start while there was something to salvage, but they talked his sister into giving (she knew it couldn’t be paid back) them some money to put the wolves at bay for a bit. His father is a difficult person at the best of times, but once he loses face and has to admit the error of his ways, we expect he will be impossible. It’s certainly a difficult place to be in, when your parents are less fiscally responsible than the kids.
Powerful story. Thanks for sharing, I think this will really help others.
It is so important to learn from our past mistakes, especially financially. Repeating bad habits will only bring unwanted results.
Thanks for sharing. That has to be tough to look back and see how you could have done things different, but you never know. Take comfort in that your lessons learned and now shared are likely helping other people with their debt (or that of someone close).