Reading the email message from Joann that recently landed in my email inbox reminded me of the safety speech flight attendants give before takeoff. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.

“... In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask.

“If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.”

That is an instruction with universal application because the foundational truth is just rock solid.

You cannot rescue someone who is drowning if you are injured or worse, cannot swim yourself. You can’t administer first aid to another if you are bleeding to death yourself.

Joann’s letter brought all of these images to mind.

“My mom is 85 years old. My dad died at an early age of 58 so she has been alone for some time. I say alone, but that is not really the case.

“Mom has raised three of her grandchildren, a great granddaughter (with my help) and now is trying to help raise a great grandson.

“Living with her currently are her grandson, his wife and their son. Her only income is a $1,200 monthly Social Security benefit. Mom is disabled and unable to work.

“Her grandson and his wife who live with her do not work. They say they are disabled and go to doctors to get prescription drugs. They are on our state’s Medicaid program.

“Long story short, my mom has accrued much debt and now I am trying to help her. I have taken over her checking account and am trying to get her back in the black.

“I considered bankruptcy for her, but after researching, decided that it’s not the best thing to do nor is it an easy thing. I am 67 years old, my husband still works, but all I have is my Social Security to use to try to help her. I hate that my mom has to spend the last years of her life worried about her bills and cannot enjoy even the simplest of things.

“Right now, my mom’s bills exceed her income. She has borrowed money against her home, and I recently found out she has borrowed money from a finance company which charges a high interest rate.

“What would you suggest for me to do in order to get some relief for my mom? Any suggestions you may have will be appreciated.”

As I reread that message my heart went out to Joann. She’s trying to rescue and fix so many situations that have spiraled out of control.

Joann’s mother ignored the first rule of safety. She did not assure her own financial future before attempting to assist others. Now she is drowning right along with those she tried to help.

The best advice I can give Joann is to learn from what she sees in front of her. Before she can help her mom, she must make sure her financial future is secure.

Already I see signs that Joann’s attempts to help her mother, and those who have moved into the mother’s home, are pulling Joann down. How can she possibly rescue all of these people when she is not wearing her “mask” or any other kind of safety equipment? She can’t, and she must not allow herself to feel guilty for that.

By assisting herself first, she will eventually be able to assist others.

Until Joann and her husband have their financial situation well in control they simply cannot participate in rescuing others.

I see you nodding your head. It’s not difficult to see what Joann needs to do. It’s clear that her mom, out of love and concern, has managed to become a burden to her children.

I’m certain that Joann would not characterize this as a “burden,” but that’s what it is and I see that all over her message.

Define It, Please

So what does it mean to “secure your retirement?” That means that you are on track for your age to reach certain benchmarks before you are unable or unwilling to continue working for a paycheck.

These benchmarks are reached by careful management of all of the money that flows into your life.

Key Benchmarks

Contingency Fund. No matter your age, you need six times your monthly income set aside in a safe and secure account to be there in case you experience a financial emergency. This is your goal and one you need to be working on each and every payday. Notice that the operative word is “you.” In case YOU experience an emergency—not your adult children, your parents or your disabled brother-in-law. You must be ready to deal with your own financial emergencies.

No unsecured debt. As long as you are carrying any unsecured debt (credit cards, student loans or other loans you can get with your signature alone), you are not in a position to give financial help to others. Getting out of debt is part of getting your own “mask” secure before assisting others.

Retirement accounts. If your employer offers a 401k program, you need to be participating with a deposit into your account each payday. In 2013 you are able to contribute $17,500 ($22,500 if you are 50 or over) each year. If your employer has a matching program, at the very least you need to be contributing enough to get that match. Not doing that is to leave free money on the table.

Personal savings. Beyond your Contingency Fund and retirement accounts you need to be saving regularly from every paycheck. Ideally, you should be saving 10 percent. That money should go first to build your Contingency Fund, then to your unsecured debts. Once debt-free, you do not stop saving. Now you can build your personal savings and personal investments—both of which are necessary to “secure your retirement.”

No mortgage. As you look at your timeline, you must be on a payment schedule to have your mortgage completely paid off before you retire. Only you can decide what the timeline looks like. Unless you are on track with that payoff schedule, your “mask is not securely in place” to allow you to assist others.

Looking back at Joann’s letter and measuring what we know against these benchmarks, it’s clear to see that her mother was not in a secure position to offer financial help to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She did not have her “mask securely in place.” But she attempted to do so anyway and in so doing, she lost her ability to help herself.

Now she needs assistance right along with all those she tried to assist. And it is possible that her attempts have backfired in another way. Those she has attempted to assist have become co-dependent with her. Her attempts may have hindered them from becoming self-sufficient and independent.

My best advice to Joann is to separate her assistance into “financial” and “information.”

Financial.

Joann and her husband are simply not in a position to offer financial help until they have secured their own futures and retirements. Unless she and her husband are now independently wealthy (meaning that they are on track with the benchmarks listed above and her Social Security check each month can be considered excess funds available to help others), they simply do not have the means to contribute financially to these family members.

Information.

Joann indicates that she has already begun researching options for her mother. There is a lot of information out there that she can gather that will be of great help to her mother should she lose the home through foreclosure (likely, given the circumstances Joann describes). What does her state offer in terms of help for low-income seniors?

Joann should also become well versed with elder care issues and programs of assistance available to her mother now, before she becomes desperate.

I cannot imagine the emotional issues facing Joann and her husband but I want to encourage them to remain steadfast and strong. They must be resolute and together on the reasons that they are taking a firm stand on this issue of securing their own future and retirement: So that they will not become a burden to their children.

Important Lesson

So where are you when it comes to having your retirement secure? No matter your age, you can use the benchmarks above to figure out if you are on track.

Until you are well positioned, you need to say no to cosigning for student loans or taking on PLUS loans. How can you assist others in this way if your “mask is not secure”? And you need to not feel obligated to offer financial help to elderly parents, either.

Once you feel secure for your retirement, then you will be in a position to use excess funds to assist others—if you are certain that assistance will be of benefit and that it will be short-lived.

The distance between being of true help and enabling others to remain helpless is a very thin line. It takes maturity and wisdom to stay on the side of authentic assistance while not slipping into the murky waters of enabling.

This article appeared originally in the Debt-Proof Living Newsletter in March 2013.

"Debt-Proof Living" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt. What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt. Today, "The Cheapskate Monthly" is read by close to 100,000 Cheapskates. Click here to subscribe.

Publication date: April 29, 2013