In my culture, it is customary for the oldest son to financially support his parents, have them live with me, etc. However, I live in the USA and they are in my home country.

My wife says “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do” meaning I have no obligations to my parents because there are no expectations like this in the USA. It doesn’t change my heart or my sense of duty. I am not a rich man, but we take vacations and have extras. My wife thinks this should be saved for our children’s college. Any thoughts?

Cultural differences seem so exotic and fascinating and may have brought the two of you together. They often do. And it’s challenging to make sure you explore every difference before deciding to marry because some of them seem just so universal it is puzzling how anyone could do anything differently.

It is also one thing when you can clearly see that your parents need a new sink because theirs is broken and when these same parents need one but are thousands of miles away.

Your wife might want you to adopt Western values, but the truth is, every day those who are middle class are supporting parents who are living at or below the poverty line. These children feel the same obligation you do to help out their parents in whatever way they can. It might go against the values of someone who grew up in the middle class or upper-middle class, as in this socioeconomic segment, parents are supposed to support children in providing help with a down payment or private school, and even leave an inheritance!

So even when you live in Rome, there are very many customs, not just one.

This, sir, is one of your marriage’s “perpetual problems,” and if you try to ignore your wife and send whatever you can, you will be destroying her trust. However, if she wins the day and you send nothing, she will be destroying your heart, and no good can come from that either.

So sit down, as you have probably done with so many issues, and hammer it out. And appreciate the fact that what you may consider “extras” your wife might consider necessities. I do remember my depression-era father pointing out that paper towels were a “luxury.” I thought he was mad, as all Millennials today would, as these are used as napkins. What happened to napkins? That would be something even my father would never do without!

But while your wife may want to argue that supporting your parents is not necessary, that matter has already been settled. It is necessary for you.

The next issue to answer are questions like:

  • How much? A percentage of income? A dollar amount? Goods and services? Visits?
  • How often?
  • Monthly or for particular needs?
  • In cash or material gifts?
  • Will you do it alone, or do siblings chip in eldercare or other services?
  • Do a daughter-in-law and son live in the house? Do they also offer assistance? Should they?
  • Will you support a sibling through college? Have them live with you and go to a nearby college?
  • Pay for parental housing?

There are so many questions you can pose, but none of them should supersede a conversation about the other things your wife wants to save for, like your children’s college. These are not “if/then” conversations. 

And don’t forget to think outside the box. Maybe you take a seasonal job. Maybe you give up a beloved sport and devote those dollars. Maybe you ask for a raise and earmark it. Maybe you start your own small company and the proceeds go there. Maybe your wife’s income goes, in part, to the college fund.

But whatever you do decide, remember that the decision has to be made after much discussion and compromise. Even if it is something that brings on anger, set aside time every week or month and try to make progress on it. Try not just to stick to the how’s and when’s, but what this action means to you and to your family and culture. Don’t assume your wife understands all of the implications. Your culture and your family are part of who you are. It’s part of the person your wife married. Don’t either of you give up the fight until you’ve reached some compromise you can both live with.

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