Financial Red Flags

8 Warning Signs an Older Adult's Finances Are Off Track
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Financial problems can easily spiral out of control if older adults don't tackle them quickly. And if they're tight-lipped about their finances or fearful of losing control over their money, they may be less likely to confide in a caregiver or family member about any money difficulties they may be experiencing -- giving problems time to snowball.

Money management problems can also be an early sign of memory loss. If these problems are new, be sure to check in with a doctor.

Even if you're not privy to the details of their finances, if you pay attention you'll see early indications that problems are brewing. Here are some of the warning signs that their finances are off track:

1. Mail is piling up unopened in their house.

Take a look around the kitchen or mail area. Are there stacks of unsorted mail? What about piles of statements from mortgage or credit card companies, utilities, notices from the Internal Revenue Service, or other unopened envelopes that appear to be bills?

As people get older, the monthly chores of paying bills may become mentally or physically overwhelming, especially if money is tight because they're on a fixed income or if they're slowing down cognitively. Stacks of unopened mail -- especially bills -- can be an important warning sign that something is amiss.

2. They seem to be mishandling money or forgetful about cash.

When you're out to eat, does the person you're caring for open his wallet, only to be surprised that he doesn't have enough money to pay for something? Do you see undeposited checks or unopened mail from pension funds, insurance companies, or Social Security hiding in piles of paperwork or lost amid household clutter?

These can both be early signs that he isn't paying close attention to his money situation. He may be physically unable to make the daily or weekly trips to the ATM or bank branch to deposit checks and take out cash, or he may be getting increasingly forgetful about his day-to-day financial dealings.

3. Creditors are showing up in the phone logs.

The phone offers a quick and easy way to check to see whether creditors are contacting -- or harassing -- the person in your care. Check the caller ID logs and keep track of any increase in phone calls from new numbers that may be bill collectors. You may also notice repeated phone calls from credit card companies or household help, such as gardeners or housecleaners looking for back wages.

4. The house is filling with new purchases, or those in your care have acquired expensive new hobbies.

Take a look around the house. Does it look like they've been doing heavy-duty damage to their credit cards? Do you see lots of new and expensive purchases around the house, like furniture, art, knickknacks, or fancy appliances such as flat-screen TVs? Or maybe they've been traveling more than usual or they've taken up some other costly new habit, like weekly golf outings to the most expensive course in town.

No one begrudges older adults the right to an occasional splurge -- especially if they're retired and finally relaxing after years of hard work. But a sudden uptick in purchases or expenses can be a sign of impaired judgment, or of memory loss -- which can be an early sign of dementia.

5. They're gambling more often or for higher stakes than usual.

Many people -- especially older adults -- enjoy organized trips to local casinos or weekly bingo or bridge games at the senior center. Gambling cruises and bus trips are a popular weekend excursion for many groups, and there's no reason to panic over the first train ride to Reno, bus to the Jersey shore, or gambling cruise to the Bahamas. But if these activities increase significantly over time, you have to face the possibility that they may have a gambling problem -- and if that's the case, gambling-related expenses could easily blow up in their faces at any time.

6. You see or hear evidence that they're falling victim to financial scams.

Take another look at the mail pile and caller ID logs. Do you see many junk-mail catalogs from unfamiliar companies, sweepstakes mailings, solicitations for investment schemes, or vacation home offers? What about frequent or repeated phone calls from unfamiliar numbers? Or has someone you're caring for excitedly told you about a surefire, can't-miss investment scheme he heard about from a neighbor?

Older adults can be especially vulnerable to scam artists and shady telemarketers -- or even well-meaning friends who have already fallen prey to this kind of scheme -- not only because they often have significant assets but also because they may be lonely or may welcome the attention. Those older adults who are starting to have memory problems are especially vulnerable to scams.

7. They're complaining about not having enough money.

Does the subject of money come up in conversation more than it used to? Do they make more passing references to the high costs of living expenses like gas, electricity, and groceries? You may also see more subtle signs that money is tight -- they may decline invitations to go out to eat with friends because of the cost, make fewer car trips because of high gas prices, and skip home fixes like house painting and furnace or appliance repairs. All of these can be signs that their expenses are too much for them to deal with on their own.

8. They seem physically unable to complete daily tasks like banking and bill paying.

Tasks that once seemed mundane can become unmanageable if their physical or mental state is deteriorating. The weekly trip to the ATM may be no big deal to you, but if they have vision problems that prevent them from driving or health issues that keep them from long walks, it may be hard for them to make it to the bank on a regular basis.

Likewise, paying bills by mail can become burdensome if arthritis makes writing checks and addressing envelopes painful. Pay attention to their general health, and you'll likely be able to keep tabs on their financial health as well.

Stephanie Miles

Stephanie Miles is a former business journalist for the online Wall Street Journal and CNET Networks, who focuses on consumer issues including finance and personal technology as well as consumer marketing and advertising. See full bio

over 3 years, said...

I've set things up with Autocredit and Autodebits that help to keep their account in balance and most bills get paid automatically and not sitting around. I don't Autodebit the credit cards though. I encourage them to use their credit cards but explaining that they still have to be paid each month from the checking account. I have access online so I can see their bank accounts anytime without actually being at their house.

about 5 years, said...

i also noticed my late husband ron doing the same thing when he was fightingcancer.. and often bills went unpaid. i still get calls from creditors or letters about unpaid bills.. what do i do now ? he died three yrs ago but im still having to pay those things off.

about 5 years, said...

By reviewing Mom's check book and "Bills Paid" file whenever I came into town, I was able to catch when her memory got worse (likely from small strokes, according to the doctor). Her normally pristine records started to include more reminder notes and check lists, and her basic check-writing skills went from perfect ... to increasingly confusing. With Mom, there were never stacks of bills not addressed. The changes and increasing "red flags" were evolutionary, as was my increased assistance. Eventually, I saw enough change to start taking over her bill paying (long distance) -- and she was glad to be relieved of the chore. At that time, my local cousins agreed to check in on Mom much more frequently. That also was when I started planning to move back to my home city, to help Mom more.

over 5 years, said...

It is good fuel for me to make inteligent decisions in the future. I am mostly concerned about the decisions our Goverment officals make, from Local, State and United State Congress and Execuitive Branch. I pray to God they follow HIS instruction.

over 5 years, said...

I don't live in the same part of the country as my mother so the "sit down and help" suggestion wouldn't help. My Aunt is with mother all the time (that's another story) so maybe I could suggest to her that she discreetly screen the calls. Thanks.

over 5 years, said...

Thank you so much for this. I already do most of this. When they moved up here 4 years ago, I automatically put caller ID on their phone. They did not know what it is, but it allows me to see how frequently they are getting calls and from whom. I clear the log after I peruse it, so it is easy for me to check between visits.

over 5 years, said...

Everything was very helpful to me particular early signs that there could be a problem. Some older people live along and dont have anyone to see whats happening. And some older people dont want anyone to know there financial situation is. This really a big probelm with older adults.

over 5 years, said...

Stephanie, Thank you for this. This is such a difficult area. It often is made far more difficult when there are difference of opinions amongst children/siblings about the existence or severity of what you've cited. One might feel the issue's a matter of the parent's dignity and hence to be left alone. The other's might feel that their own financial health is threatened by the parents problematic behavior. -Mark Zilberman, LCSW

over 5 years, said...

This will keep me aware of when I may make a mistake. Thanks for publishing this.

over 5 years, said...

Tell your mother you will to help by adding you to her checking account so you can sit with her and pay her bills alone with her. So she thinks she still in charge

over 6 years, said...

Several of these signs apply to my mother, and have done for years . She's very secretive about that subject and has managed to thwart any discussion of her finances through evasiveness, tears, defensiveness and so on. Has anyone had luck dealing with such a tough customer? Thanks!

over 6 years, said...

I am a daily money manager and help seniors and others with bill paying, paper management and follow-through. Professionals like me can work ALONG SIDE OF or FOR seniors (and others) getting bills paid and being the "eyes and ears" in questionable situations. For more information, check out

about 7 years, said...

Responding to No. 6: I agree, look at the caller ID logs. Look for and write down frequent or repeated phone calls from unfamiliar and even familiar numbers. My mother was being taken to the cleaners by more than one shady handymen. I would call the unfamiliar number and 'sharp shoot' who answered. Don't be afraid of offending someone you don't know. Even so-called friends of my mother knew me well. I'm sure their thoughts of me were unpleasant but I didn't care. I even went so far as to have a local police officer go to the house of one 'handyman' to see if my mother gave him her compressor. That was all it took to keep him away. Another handyman taking her money was not so easy to shake. He said "I am your mother's priest." When I heard this I went straight to his catholic church, we are not catholic, and told HIS Priest to "tell the handyman to stay away from my mother or I would have a restraining order put on him". It actually took two trips to the Catholic Church to convince them I was serious about a member of THEIR parish. But it worked. If you have an empty house, keep the phone on to monitor. After I moved mom in with me, her house was a sitting duck. Thankfully, the only trouble we had was after the auction announcement stated in the add the owner had to move out. How stupid is that. Fortunately the local police in our county are wonderful. The house unoccupied at the time but full of belongings to be auctioned the following day. I was there checking on things when a strange truck pulled in. I wrote down the license plate. The woman knew she was there a day early. Days following the auction, more things from inside the house disappeared. The police paid a visit to the woman registered to the plate. It was a woman they knew well. They know how to question; she gave herself away and was warned to stay away. There were no further problems. You have to be a 'pit-bull' for your parent. They don't need to know you're suspicious of someone. And for goodness sake, don't worry about hurting someone's feelings. I promise you if their intentions are honorable, they'll get over it. If their intentions self-serving, they will quietly go away. Unfortunately they will look for and find another elderly victim.

about 8 years, said...

I know my in-laws need help taking care of their finances, but my father in law doesn't want to let go of control, even though my husband (their son) has power of attorney.

over 9 years, said...

I am a healthy 81 year old widow, who lives alone, but has a boyfriend, travels a lot, and leads an active life- HOWEVER am aware that I may need help at some point and so I am sharing info about my finances with my 3 children. And am sending the article to them - hopefully - they will never have to refer to it-

over 10 years, said...

It's a frightening list but one that definitely gives some clues to look for.

over 10 years, said...

My mother-in-law banks online. After brain surgery, she permitted my sister-in-law to check her accounts using her password just to double-check everything looked pretty standard. While my sister-in-law was conscious of her mother's desire to live independently and handle her own finances, having the ability to take a look every once-in-awhile was really comforting to the family.

over 10 years, said...

My In laws run out of food money every month. I'm not sure if their fixed income is simply not enough or if they are mishandling it. It is very frustrating to not be able to see into their finances to know what kind of help they really need - more money or planning help.