Just Say No

Dear Mike,

I live with my boyfriend, C., and we’re very open about our finances, which are becoming more and more intertwined at this point in our relationship. We’re both big savers and are in good financial situations, except when it comes to his family. Although his mother makes plenty of money, she’s constantly asking C. for money. When C. lived at home after college, he helped her pay off significant credit card debt, but her spending habits are still problematic. She’s an emotional spender, and her house is cluttered with clothes, books, and other things she never uses. She recently did a kitchen renovation she hadn’t saved for, and ended up asking C. for thousands of dollars to cover the costs. He insists that she knows it’s a loan, and that she’ll pay him back, but he has no idea when that will happen.

His younger brother lives at home. He just finished grad school, and is not yet employed. When C. and I moved in together, we downsized to one car. He gave his brother his car, with the expectation that his brother would eventually pay him some small fraction of the car’s value, but that the car is mostly a gift. His brother never bothered to get summer jobs, or internships in college, and there seems to be no expectation that he contribute to the family monetarily, the way C. does. I admire C.’s generosity to his family, but he’s starting grad school now (while still working full-time) and I’m concerned that all this money he’s giving them is going to force him to take out more student loans, thus hurting his (our?) financial situation for years to come.

He knows that this is not sustainable for him or his family, but it’s understandably hard for him to tell his mom she needs to change her spending habits and learn to save money. I’m uncertain about my place in all this, because it impacts me, but I’m not really in a position to say anything to my boyfriend’s mom, and I’m not sure if she’s aware of how much I know. Is there a kind and gentle way for C. to say “Mom, I can’t give you any more money?” Are there resources we can suggest to help her develop better spending habits (if it matters, she’s in her mid-50’s and—thank goodness!—has a generous pension when she retires, so retirement saving isn’t a big issue)? — A.H.

Dear A.H.,

It’s been weeks—months—since I’ve received this letter from you. I’ve read and re-read your letter many times. I’d sit at my desk on a weekend morning, or I’d come home late at night after a long day, and I’d pull up your letter with the intention of answering it. But then I’d shut down my laptop and do something else, or I’d look through the questions in my inbox to see if there was something else I could answer more immediately. I’m sorry that I couldn’t answer your letter sooner.

The reason why answering this letter has been so difficult for me is very clear: I am a son who financially supports my parents. That won’t come as a surprise to you if you’ve read some of my previous pieces on this site. It’s a common thing for the child of immigrant parents to do. But here’s something less common, something I’ve never admitted to before: I’m also a sibling who has financially supported a brother. I cannot defend that decision with arguments about filial piety, or cultural obligations.

My decision to give my brother money to help him pay his bills while he struggled with unemployment was done completely of my own volition. I did it out of love. I did it to be kind. I did it, often when I could not afford to do it, which means I did it because I couldn’t bring myself to say no. I am no angel. There were times when I did it because I felt like I had no other choice, and I’d curse the stars, and stew in a mix of anger and sadness in my apartment, feeling a little sorry about the position I was in. And then I’d feel guilty about feeling angry about something where I had that one powerful word I could use if I wanted things to change: No.

To answer your letter, A.H., is to answer a question I have in my own life. How do you say no to your own flesh and blood? I can sympathize with C. for wanting to support his mother and brother, because I am a person who supports his mother and brother. But the answer for C. is the answer I have for me: Just say no.

Giving that answer is easy—the hard part is actually saying it. Saying no to someone you love is hard to do, and hearing no from someone you love can be hard to take. But there is no way around the truth. The truth is that C. cannot afford to give his mother money. The truth is that C. is not in the financial position to give his mother money. The truth is that C. is going into debt by giving his mother money—he’s paying thousands of dollars for her kitchen renovation, and then borrowing money to pay for grad school. C. knows why giving money to his mother is unsustainable. The only thing he needs to tell her is the truth: “I can’t afford to give you any more money.” That word, “afford,” is key because C.’s mom may not even be aware that he’s not in a financial position to give her money. Sometimes when someone asks for money, and you give it, they assume that you can afford to do it.

I suspect that saying no will be a liberating thing for both C. and his mother. C. will be able to save and spend money to build a life of his own and fund his own dreams instead of paying off other people’s credit card bills and kitchen renovations. C.’s mother, no matter how she reacts to what he has to say, will be forced to figure out how to live her own life with her own money. She will learn to believe that she has what it takes to make it on her own, that, if god forbid anything were to happen to her children, she would know that inside of her is this powerful, self-sufficient individual who can face anything that comes at her. Her generous pension plan will also probably help her with that.

As for resources—if C.’s mom doesn’t have a financial advisor, I’d suggest that she ask other family members or friends and colleagues for recommendations about who they use, and then meet with each of them to see who she clicks with the best. She should bring a list of things she’d like to improve on—whether that’s saving, creating a budget, or limiting her spending. If she really is an emotional spender, she should also consider seeing a therapist (which worked for one of our writers who was a compulsive shopper). If she’s having trouble with debt, she should get in touch with a credit counselor in her area, and should be able to find one through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit credit counseling organization. And she’s welcome to email me too, even if it’s just to hang out and chat.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with my brother about how difficult it is for me to help him pay his bills. “It’s hard for me,” I said. “Because I want to help you and mom, but I can only do so much for so long.” He understood. “What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out,” he said. He’s paid his bills this month—without any of my help.


— Mike


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10 Comments / Post A Comment

This is heartbreaking to me. It’s one thing to help a parent in need (when they may have helped you through your childhood, education, etc), but when a parent is spending beyond their means, they are crippling their child. To me, it feels like they are taking advantage of their children.

I understand that in other cultures, it is common to help your family out financially, but when the help is one sided…it really frustrates me.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Leah Klein@facebook Yeah. Not too dissimilar from the earlier “opened a credit card in child’s name” sort of thing? Kind of gross all around.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

Well written, Mike. As a reader who didn’t ask the question, it was totally worth the wait.

glow bug (#1,606)

This is great advice for the boyfriend who is giving money. The girlfriend however, is one step removed and she needs to find out if her boyfriend is on the same page of wanting the codependency and unhealthy attachment to stop.

Mike, you’re kind of amazing.

mishaps (#65)

@Euphemistic Response Amen.

Mike and C., you guys are amazing human beings.

But as you both know, and as Mike says, you can’t give indefinitely. It’s not sustainable.

One of my favourite personal finance bloggers, Revanche, is in pretty much the same situation. You may want to check out some of her archives (agaishanlife.com). Saying no is tough. Saying no to family is much worse.

I’m probably in a similar situation to the letter writer. My family gets by fine. My partner’s family are all broke. It’s a delicate and ongoing situation (and as I’m the main income earner, I’m not particularly inclined towards funneling my money toward them, sorry. We may be better off than all of them combined (the bar is set low), but we are still just two 20-somethings trying to get started in the world). I think we’ve managed to establish a reasonable distance, but it hasn’t been easy: http://nzmuse.com/2011/06/30/it-all-started-with-an-iphone-or-why-mixing-family-and-money-only-leads-to-dramas/

I totally agree with what Mike has written, but I’d like to address A.H. specifically. Yes, your boyfriend should stand up for himself, for his sake and his family’s, and Mike has outlined the reasons and ways to do it.

But you are not your boyfriend, and you can’t make your boyfriend do anything. Or maybe you can. I don’t know your relationship. But you’ve got to decide—now or later—what you’re willing to sign up for. If your boyfriend decides to support his family, will you be okay with that? There are a lot of dealbreakers in a relationship, and this seems to me like it might be one. Let your imagination go — if he decides that he will support his family, will you support that? Or will you ressent that? You wrote the letter, but this is not your problem. Unless you’re willing to make it your problem. Are you?

selenana (#673)

@Logan Sachon Yeah, her relationship status is not super clear, but it does say their finances are being intertwined and it sounds like they have a future in mind. So it is kind of her problem if they are in a living together, partnered situation. I feel like if they were married then people would probably take her more seriously, but if they really are partners in it for the long run, married or not, it is her problem.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

As someone in this exact situation, may I weigh in? I, in this story, may be the boyfriend, though – I support my mum with basic living costs (rent, bills, credit card, petrol). My partner lives in the same house as us, so we’re all under one roof. I have not been able to contribute to our savings for over 2 years. My partner finally put his foot down and said “I’m leaving this house at the end of the year. Feel free to join me or not.”
We are now apartment hunting and have informed my mother that we are doing so, and intend to be out before the end of the year if we’re accepted for a flat. In the meantime, I still help her out when she’s desperate because saying no is hard, but now at least she pays back money I lend.
Baby steps.

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