Silence Not Golden in Intergenerational Family Finance

The last time I ran into one of my favorite cousins, the conversation soon turned to which far-flung family members she had recently heard from. She divulged she hadn’t yet heard from my youngest cousin, her younger brother, about his recent trip to Southwest Michigan. That was not new, as she’d called another of my cousins, her older brother, two weeks earlier and had yet to hear back.

“Have you heard from my sister?” I asked.


“Has my sister heard from you?”


“Has Uncle Bill heard from Uncle Jack?”


“Has the cat heard from the dog?”


“And vice versa?”


As you can tell, the family is not the best at keeping communication channels open. But I’m not sure that’s a serious charge, because that issue appears to be a pain point for many families. And from what I gather, lack of communication is never more acute than when it comes to discussing money issues.

This was reinforced during a recent lunch with one of my editors. Her mother is in her 70s, the editor said, very sharp and youthful. But she will not discuss cash. I commiserated, recalling for her my first attempt to talk with my dad about family finances, and what specifically might happen in the event of his passing.

His response to my conversational overture was to take me to task for waiting so long to bring up the topic. Then he clammed up to a degree that would have made Marcel Marceau appear chatty. He uttered virtually nothing for years about wills, trusts,  savings accounts,  insurance policies, retirement accounts, pensions, home value, powers of attorney, living wills or burial wishes.

Cat’s got their tongue

Vanguard Financial Advisor Services recently took a deep dive into this issue of non-communication between family members regarding finances.

In Vanguard’s Investment Commentary podcast series, Kristin Barry of Vanguard Financial Advisor Services revealed “two-thirds of boomers have disclosed little to no information about their wealth to their children.” What’s more, only about half of those working with financial advisers have formulated any plans to get their family members talking it up with their financial advisers.

Not long before, Fidelity Investments had also commissioned a study of this topic. The Fidelity Intra-Family Generational Finance Study Executive Summary examined the attitudes among more than 1, 100 U.S. parents and their adult sons and daughters.

Among the key findings was that young adults experience emotional and financial stress resulting from lack of communication with their parents. Almost seven in ten parents and six in ten of their adult sons and daughters say they are more comfortable talking with third-party financial professionals than one another. And while almost 19 in 20 (94 percent) of parents and their adult offspring agree on the importance of having explicit discussions about wills and estate planning, those conversations often end up exhibiting, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, all the depth and clarity of a mud puddle.

The result is a predictable inter-generational disconnect on all manner of things familial and financial. For instance, adult offspring underestimate the value of their parents’ estates by more than $100, 000. Almost 97 percent of older adults say they will not need help from their children, while almost one quarter (24 percent) of adult sons and daughters anticipate having to help their parents.

The number one reason parents cite for not conversing on retirement plans with adult sons and daughters (cited by 30 percent of respondents) is that they don’t want the younger folk to depend too much on inheritances. Meantime, the top reason cited by the younger generation (40 percent) for the intergenerational silence is that their parents’ money concerns really are none of their business.

Even the issue of the timing of financial conversations is fraught with discord. Ninety percent of parents and their adult offspring agree such conversations are important, but only about 30 percent agree on when they should be held. A much higher percentage of adult kids than their parents, for instance, believe talks should be held before the older folks retire.

Talk it up

There are significant benefits to breaking through the impasse and opening the lines of clear communication. And they go beyond money, Fidelity says.

More than 85 percent of older adults reported they enjoyed increased peace of mind after having detailed conversations with their adult offspring.

Clear majorities also stated that they felt those detailed discussions benefited the adult sons’ and daughters’ emotional state (67 percent) and financial future (61 percent), and also were likely to result in improving the financial lot of the grandchildren (52 percent).

To break through that taboo about talking money with family members, the Vanguard Podcast recommended a few different strategies. One is to start the talk without any actual dollar figures bandied about, which may have a way of loosening up everyone’s tongues. Another is to encourage a more educational exchange, in which older family members offer insights on getting the most from savings, or juggling marital and financial differences, as a way of easing into heavier money talks.

Talking about money with family may not be the easiest thing to accomplish. But managing a substantive conversation on the topic can help make everyone feel better, and that’s worth a lot.

Who said talk is cheap?

One Response to “Silence Not Golden in Intergenerational Family Finance”

  1. Anonymous

    I like top use articles I’ve found online as a way to strike up a conversation. When you start of being less personal, you run a better chance of avoiding awkwardness.

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