Recognizing the sacrifices of grandparents

Michelle Singletary
Columnist September 8, 2012

In proclaiming the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day, President Jimmy Carter said that our grandparents “bore the hardships and made the sacrifices that produced much of the progress and comfort we enjoy today. It is appropriate, therefore, that as individuals and as a nation, that we salute our grandparents for their contribution to our lives.”

In time for this year’s National Grandparents Day, Generations United and MetLife Mature Market Institute released a survey that again reminds us just how vital grandparents are to caregiving. Many are the financial safety net for their children and grandchildren, the survey found.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Over the past five years, the majority of grandparents polled said they had provided financial support or monetary gifts for their grandchildren. The average amount of this support was $8,289.

Forty-three percent of grandparents gave money for clothing, 33 percent for general support and 29 percent for education, such as preschool, private schools, tutoring, college tuition and graduate school.

If you are familiar with my work, then you know I’ve long saluted the influence that my grandmother, Big Mama, had on my life. She provided me with essential financial lessons that helped me form good money-management skills. Big Mama still influences my financial choices 17 years after her death. I can’t get her “credit is evil” out of my head.

I give honor to my grandmother for saving me from foster care. Big Mama took me in when I was 4. She also took in my two sisters — 8 and 3 — and 1-year-old twin brothers. In this respect, my grandmother did what many have done. The fact that a great many grandparents are raising their grandchildren results in a $6.5 billion savings to taxpayers, estimates Generations United, an intergenerational advocacy organization.

“The number of grandparents helping raise their grandchildren has ebbed and flowed over the years but in recent years we have seen an increase because of the economy,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United.

Grandparents often give too much. One-third are giving financial support to grandchildren even though they believe it is having a negative effect on their own financial security, according to the grandparents’ survey.

“Grandparents are making financial sacrifices that could cost them when they find themselves short of the savings they need to support themselves in retirement,” said Sandra Timmermann, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute. “There is a need to balance what they’re giving with what they can afford to give.”

Big Mama was eligible to receive government support for my siblings and me, but she refused, save for medical assistance. My grandmother didn’t want the handout and the interference that could have come with financial assistance. So on her low-paying salary as a nursing assistant, she took care of our basic needs.

But Butts says many grandparents can’t afford to be proud. They need to ask for help. “Sometimes grandparents do feel the stigma of accepting help or they just don’t know there are resources available,” she said.

Butts said one grandmother spent down her retirement money paying for dental care for a grandson who would have been eligible for state aid.

As part of a weeklong celebration of Grandparents Day, Generations United is asking people this year to “Do Something Grand.” For example, in Rochester, N.Y., a grandparents’ support group is throwing a baby shower for a grandmother who took in two sets of twin grandchildren (4 years old and 18 months old).

“When grandparents do these things and sacrifice, they deserve support,” Butts said.

If you want ideas on how to honor your grandparents in a grand way, go to Grandparentsday.org . Click on the link for “Take Action” and then click on the link for “Grandparents Day Take Action Guide.”

I would also like to hear from you. What financial lessons have you learned from a grandparent? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line put “Grand Advice.”

For National Grandparents Day, it would be great if two things happened. If you know of grandparents struggling to care for grandchildren, figure out what they need and help if you can afford to. And don’t just say, “I’m here if you need me.” That’s too vague and often unhelpful.

Finally, if a grandparent has helped you financially, tell him or her (or them both) how grateful you are or should be. Say it. Don’t text, tweet or just buy a card. Let them hear from you personally how their grand efforts have added to your life.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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