Warning: Your Money Smarts May Be Fading

The older you get, the more confusing finances can tend to be for many people. Here are some warning signs that you or someone you love may be getting overwhelmed and some practical tips to stay on top of things.

(Image credit: LilliDay)

The bills, the Social Security payments, the checks that didn’t get deposited, the meetings with your financial advisers, the insurance payments, your Medicare payments, the tracking of doctors’ bills, the fight with the pharmacy when Medicare doesn’t pay for your prescription? Sound familiar? The big question is: Are all these money problems becoming overwhelming? How can you cope?

According to the Financial Consumer Services Commission, “Confusion over money and a decline in the ability to perform regular financial tasks are the earliest warning signs of diminished capacity and the easiest to spot.” I don’t want to go down the dark road of possible early warnings of Alzheimer’s, I just want to give you some tips to help to make it through this money maze, that frankly baffles and frustrates most of us at one time or another.

Here are some of the warning signs that the Financial Consumer Services Commission lists, and some tips to deal with them.

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Taking longer than usual to complete everyday financial tasks

You may get forgetful when you are paying bills. That means you could forget to pay some and pay others twice. It happens. What do you do about it? To start out, make sure you either make a list of all of the bills and check off when you have paid them, or just check off or cross out the bill you have paid.

It may be time to hire a bookkeeper to help you pay and manage bills, policies and paperwork. I find that the best place to find one is to get a recommendation from your accountant. Make sure that the bookkeeper reports to you and to the accountant each month. You also can include a family member so that you really have checks and balances.

Even with a bookkeeper, try to be as organized as possible. That means setting up a folder with all of the bills for each month. The other thing to do is to set up as many bills as you can as automatic online payments. You don’t have to figure out how. This is a perfect task for your bookkeeper or children or grandchildren to help you with. Make sure that you do this with someone you trust, because you will be sharing lots of financial information. Really make sure that you trust them.

You can send the bills to your bookkeeper each month, they can come to your house each month to pay bills and get things in order, or you can snap a picture of each bill on your phone and send them the pics as the bills come in.

Decline in everyday math skills

You may have trouble figuring out some basic math skills when you are tipping, for instance. Rather than driving yourself crazy and getting upset, ask the friend you are with what they recommend for a tip. Frankly, sometimes it’s really hard to even read the bill, so don’t get embarrassed.

Other ideas: Buy a handy pocket tip calculator card to carry in your wallet. It’s a laminated chart of 15% and 20% tip amounts for a range of dollar values. Or just whip out your phone and use its calculator function.

Decreased understanding of financial concepts and contracts

You may have been a wiz at reading contracts when you were in the workforce, but now are having problems with some of the concepts. This is why we surround ourselves with professionals like lawyers, insurance agents, financial advisers, personal bankers, etc. Use them. Call them up when you have a question, and don’t get off the phone until they can explain things so that you understand. If they start spewing jargon, stop them and tell them to explain it all in plain language.

We do this with doctors; do that now with your financial support group … or, if you’re not satisfied with their help, get a new support group. It’s also time for family to get permission to speak with the financial professionals in your life. I’m not recommending them having access to any assets — as with a power of attorney — just information so that someone you trust can look over your shoulder and double check that your investing ideas make sense.

Difficulty identifying risks in a financial opportunity

You don’t have to be older to struggle to accurately assess risks in advertising and investment pitches, but as we age, it can get harder to do. That makes older folks vulnerable to financial abuse and theft or fraud. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or confused, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself:

Just say no. That’s always a great first step when confronted with a bossy salesperson or complicated deal.

Kiss robocalls goodbye. To learn about some tactics to try, read Thwarting the Robocall Invasion.

Tell solicitors to take a hike. You can opt out of commercial mail solicitations through the Direct Marketing Association at https://dmachoice.thedma.org.

In addition, the FBI has compiled a list of helpful tips to avoid scams, including:

  • Don’t buy from an unfamiliar company. Legitimate businesses understand that you want more information about their company and are happy to comply.
  • Always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity. If you get brochures about costly investments, ask someone whose financial advice you trust to review them. But beware — not everything written down is true.
  • Always check out unfamiliar companies with your local consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, state attorney general, the National Fraud Information Center, or other watchdog groups.
  • Always take your time making a decision. Legitimate companies won’t pressure you to make a snap decision.
  • Don’t pay for a “free prize.” If a caller tells you the payment is for taxes, he or she is violating federal law.
  • Never respond to an offer you don’t understand thoroughly.
  • Never send money or give out personal information such as credit card numbers, bank account numbers, dates of birth or Social Security numbers to unfamiliar companies or unknown persons.

For more of the FBI’s tips, see www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-fraud-schemes/telemarketing-fraud.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have someone you trust take a look at your finances every few months. They will check credit cards and cash withdrawals to make sure that everything looks kosher. They should also check to make sure that a new “friend” has not shown up in your life who wants to help you with your finances.

Hey, family and friends…what about you?

I’d encourage you to be part of the solution, not the problem. We have all heard the horror stories of family and friends taking advantage of the elderly. In fact, it’s called, senior financial abuse. The Institute on Aging has indicated that “one in five Americans over 65 has been the victim of fraud.”

Signs of possible abuse by those close to the victim

You may see:

  • Larger-than-normal household bills
  • Manipulation of the victim to buy things for the family member
  • Loans that go unpaid
  • Missing cash or large withdrawals
  • Opening of credit accounts
  • Getting victims to sign important documents, like a change of a will or deed or power of attorney

Age creates wisdom, but it also comes with challenges. If you and your loved ones get on top of these money issues, your life will be easier.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Neale Godfrey, Financial Literacy Expert
President & CEO, Children's Financial Network Inc.

Neale Godfrey is a New York Times #1 best-selling author of 27 books, which empower families (and their kids and grandkids) to take charge of their financial lives. Godfrey started her journey with The Chase Manhattan Bank, joining as one of the first female executives, and later became president of The First Women's Bank and founder of The First Children's Bank. Neale pioneered the topic of "kids and money," which took off after her 13 appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." www.nealegodfrey.com