A lifeguard tower at sunset on a beach at Anna Maria, Fla. (Al Messerschmidt)
Columnist

They took care of you. Now it’s your turn.

But what if your parents, whom you feel obligated to care for, are bad money managers?

What if their spending habits are likely to bring you down financially? Do you still spend to save them?

This is the dilemma for two readers who asked for my help during a recent online discussion.

Senior situation No. 1: Retired parents. At issue is an amount of money received from a former employer.

“My parents were never good at managing money,” my reader wrote. “My mother, now 74, received a lump-sum distribution from her former employer so I helped her open an IRA. We sat down and figured out how much money she would have available each month through automatic transfers into her checking account. I calculated that pot of money would last her for a good eight years.”

Except the money isn’t lasting.

“Imagine my shock when my sister (who lives close by; I’m four hours away) tells me my mother is spending money like it’s going out of style.”

The carefully calculated transfers of $500 a month to make the money last longer turned into $1,200 to $1,500 monthly withdrawals. At this rate, the money will be gone in about 14 months.

“My sister and I simply don’t know what to do and are completely frustrated. We’re both in our late 40s, with our own children to put through college, mortgages and retirements to save for. Yet we feel guilty because we know the day will soon come when we’ll be asked again to help. Anything you can offer will be greatly appreciated.”

Senior situation No. 2: Elderly in-laws living on a small pension, which is enough to cover basic expenses but not enough to handle any financial emergencies. The couple recently declared bankruptcy in part because the wife opted for expensive dental implants.

“Dentures would have done the trick but are uncomfortable they told us,” this reader said. “After the bankruptcy, we started to pay some of their fixed bills — car note, phone bill — to give them some breathing room. They recently told us that because they now have extra money, instead of saving it for emergencies, which is what we would prefer, they are going to use that money for more dental implants. We will finish paying the car note for them but do not want to give them any more money. We are making a judgment call on their finances, but we are frustrated with the lack of financial acumen and believe we will be paying for more emergencies down the road. Do you have some suggestions?”

Here’s where this thing called life gets really difficult. Clearly the adult children in these two scenarios care. But they feel — and they are right to feel that way — that their parents are taking advantage of them.

I absolutely believe that we all should be on standby to assist relatives in need. And this most certainly includes elderly parents. But there are some cases where you’re not helping but enabling.

When you become the banker to elderly parents who repeatedly make ill-advised financial decisions, you are in part to blame when they don’t change for the better. How can they if you’re bailing them out all the time?

Or think of it this way: When someone is drowning and you come to the rescue, what’s one likely scenario?

The person will clutch onto you to push herself up. But in her panic to survive, you get pulled down. When it comes to finances, it could be financially or psychologically. You’ll end up delaying or draining your emergency or retirement savings and thus creating the same situation for your own children.

You can support your parents by steering them to a nonprofit consumer-counseling agency (You can find a local agency by going to National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) or calling 800-388-2227). Let a professional help them budget better.

Make sure there isn’t some medical reason for their poor money management. If not, don’t feel guilty for saying no. Let them flail about. Your parents have to learn to live within their means, not yours.

In my experience, change often doesn’t come unless folks have to deal with the consequences of the mismanagement of their money.

Stop thinking you have to be the dutiful adult child who must — at all costs — run to the rescue of your financially irresponsible parents. Instead, think of yourself as a lifeguard with that orange rescue buoy. Assist, but don’t get pulled under.

Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.