Every American above the age of 75 spent all or part of their childhood in the Great Depression. When an elder resists spending money or pinches pennies, someone is ready to note that this is the reason. Sorry, but I do not buy that excuse. These same people have lived another 70 years since that period of American history ended, including the prosperous 1950s. Many of them owned a house and raised a family and are now enjoying grandchildren or even great-grandchildren.

So why do we regularly cite their formative years as the basis for their frugal nature? While it was the period of their lives when they were learning lessons from parents worried about the next meal or a roof over their heads a case could be made for the fact that things just cost more now than years ago because of general inflation and economic growth. Back in the 1970s private college tuition was $4,000/year. Now my youngest child’s tuition bill is $55,000! In my opinion, many seniors who refuse to hire help of any sort are not frugal.

Frugal is when you watch every penny, when you question every charge on an invoice or when you make sure you get two hours of service when you pay someone for two hours of their time. There are many seniors who claim to be frugal but who are simply using that as an excuse to avoid getting support. The same senior that says she cannot afford to hire even a little support is overpaying for many services and products every month. Like the 100-year-old woman who signed up for cable and because she didn’t understand the cable company’s definitions of basic and premium is now paying over $100/month to view a half-dozen channels she likes and dozens she will never watch! Or the 97-year-old man who just renewed his People Magazine subscription (something he doesn’t read anymore anyway) when a solicitor called and offered a great deal on a 5-year subscription.

These charges are obviously the result of unscrupulousness on the part of these companies, but the bottom line is that these costs are added to the monthly base and become part of the senior’s regular fixed monthly costs. They or their families or their accountant or bookkeeper simply pay what they are asked to pay. Later, when the senior is approached by a service provider offering a valuable service the cost is considered “too much” and the expense is rejected even when it might be far more valuable.

Examples of overpayments and unnecessary costs that become embedded in monthly budgets:

  • When home maintenance costs are paid in small increments the costs add up quietly, either by small rate increases or product/service downsizing: The snow contractor who no longer shovels your walk but still charges the same fee as before.
  • Fees that get added surreptitiously to invoices and statements from service providers with details on how to “opt out” buried in the small print.
  • Automobile or homeowner insurance policies that seniors do not review before renewing. Perhaps they now qualify for low mileage discounts or the jewelry riders on the homeowner policy are unnecessary since mom’s jewelry was distributed to her daughters when she passed away a few years ago.

So, where am I going with this? I guess I am expressing some frustration at seniors and their families who reject help from an agency like ours because of the cost. They listen politely but conclude that we are offering something they cannot “afford.” They cite budgets and income constraints and their parents’ frugality left over from their childhood in the 1930s. But many seniors could easily pay for this valuable or, perhaps, necessary support if they simply did an audit of their monthly and yearly “fixed” costs. They should be genuinely frugal and make sure they are getting everything they are paying for!

[Based on my conversations with many seniors, the most fertile place for reducing monthly costs is with snow contractors and cleaning “ladies.” Many have become friends with their housekeeper. In more than one case the senior has two cleaning ladies (that rotate weeks), the second being added because there was “too much” for one person to do when in fact neither did enough to justify their fees. In another case, when challenged about why she still goes up and down the basement stairs to do laundry – against her better judgment and doctor’s orders – a senior explained that her cleaning lady has a bad back and she doesn’t want her to have to go up and down those stairs too much! Then there are the seniors who refuse to get help coming out of rehab but have paid their “poor” cleaning lady for the two months while they weren’t even home!]

You can “take back” the value of these services by being a squeaky wheel or being a bit more vigilant. Remind the lawn service that trimming the flower garden was part of the deal when you hired them or remind the snow removal contractor that he agreed to clear your walk and spread salt at the end of every storm when you agreed to the fee he proposed. You can also compare phone, cable, or bank statements to earlier ones to see if there are any new line items with dollar signs next to them or reduce services without affecting your quality of life.

So let’s circle back to the beginning: When seniors say they cannot afford something like a little help around the house, it isn’t because of their experience during the depression. Back then, they would have expected to get what they paid for while now they might accept poor service because they don’t dare ask for good service. It is a natural human tendency not to rock the boat and risk a confrontation. Alienating a provider is unpleasant and carries the risk of worse service or having to find a replacement.

So, the next time a senior, or an enabling relative, cites cost as a reason for not getting support, ask a few questions. See if they are being as frugal with other monthly expenses. You may not get them to come around right away but at least plant the seed that they might not be getting what they are paying for from other providers. And if you are a senior reading this, make it a point to review all your costs and expenses and reviewing bills from the cable and electric companies. See if you can reduce those fixed monthly costs. You will then have a few dollars more each month to spend on things that could prove to be valuable – or just go out and have some fun with the savings!

Thanks for reading and please leave a comment!