Families and finances don’t always mix. We’ve all heard stories of wealthy folk who choose to leave little to no inheritance for their heirs.
By the time those family members got the jilt, the big breadwinner was dead. In a vanishing act, they dropped the bomb, and never had to look at the faces in the room.
There’s a similar issue out there in family finance land that is almost as common, but rarely gets talked about. And that’s the pressure of being the only person in a family that is able to maintain a steady income.
Unlike the wealthy dead, who escape being held accountable for their decisions, people who are the sole income earners in a family have to look into the eyes of their parents, siblings, children, and live with the fallout of accepting or rejecting a family member's request for finances.
Susan (not her real name) is a hard-working physician. She is the sole breadwinner in her house. She has almost cleared her loans from medical school and manages the family budget that includes private school for one of her children and preparing for college educations for both kids. She spends on herself here and there but more often on her family. Insisting on getting time away from her hectic schedule for quality time with her husband and kids.
Susan also regularly supports a younger sister who is a sometimes functioning alcoholic, and a stepbrother who struggles to hold jobs due to bouts of sometimes violent schizophrenia. “It’s hard,” she says. “What am I supposed to do, turn my back on them when they need help?”
The help is needed regularly. To the tune of several thousand dollars each year. And not always for things Susan agrees with. “Many of the decisions my family members make are terrible, they don’t have regular income, they don’t budget, or prioritize or plan ahead. My sister, who is divorced and has two young girls, quit her last job, for no good reason, without making any preparations to get a new one. She didn’t have gas in the car, food in the fridge, and all her credit cards were maxed out.”
But Susan is no fool. She realizes that in some cases she may be enabling poor decision making on the part of her family members. She also realizes that they have, over the years, learned how to push the right buttons to manipulate her into helping with money. These things, combined with one another set the stage of reliance for Susan’s family.
“I think I jumped in with money too quickly,” she says. “Partly because it made me feel good to help. It made me feel successful that I could help. If I had it to do over, I would have been more careful to set myself up as an emotional supporter. A good listening sister, but I wanted to feel good about myself. So instead of asking how are you feeling, or what do you plan to do, I wanted to solve everything immediately. So, I started handing out money, without any boundaries or judgment or expectations. And then that became the expectation.”
Susan is far from alone. And while every case is different, one thing about Susan is similar to many people who find themselves in her position. Somehow, over time, they began being seen by their family as a source of support. And it is the primary role (even though they never asked for it) that they are expected to fulfill.
The discomfort Susan feels is a constant at any family event. “I know it’s coming, I just never know when," she explains. “She usually approaches me on day one, after she’s had a few drinks. And her tactics are brilliant.” says Susan. When Susan started rejecting her sister's requests, she got angry and hostile. Then she then started borrowing money from her Mom, knowing that when those debts went unpaid, it would be Susan who had to bail her Mom out. “I’ve cut her off financially”, explains Susan looking stern, “but she just keeps coming back. It’s gotten to where everyone in the family knows that we cannot be around one another.”
When asked if she’s angry about this role she’s been given, she pauses, carefully and then says “I’m more scared of it because I’m not sure I can continue to do it. I don’t like being seen as the only one who has it together. It’s frightening to look in the mirror and ask what happens if something happens to me? Where is my support? Where is the support for my family?”
Strategies to say no more successfully
Start by knowing that healthy choices can be very hard choices. As Susan pointed out, step one is to recognize that throwing money at most problems isn’t a very effective solution. And bailing people out shouldn’t be a source of “feeling good” for you.
If you have family members that are just beginning to turn to you as the sole source of support here are some things to do and to avoid:
Be a generous listener, and a supportive ally.
Recognize that these struggles are not yours to navigate.
No matter what, resist the urge to feel good about yourself by using your finances to make someone else's problems disappear. The people and their problems will always come back.
Be cautious of offering a handout. You can try to offer a loan, but not for more than you can lose. And be overly clear about payment terms. Don’t loan money to family members who fail, even once, to respect those terms.
If you’re already in the cycle of supplying help to your family, and don’t want to continue, here are some strategies to begin changing that routine.
Set emotion-free safe zones. And stick to them no matter what. For example, never discuss money at a family holiday or event.
When you think you are being asked for funds:
1. Be an empathetic listener and let them share their entire story.
2. Do not interrupt and offer support or let them hint at it. Make them ask you directly.
3. When they make their request take control of the conversation with one of these short inflexible statements. Do not apologize or expand on them.
I understand. I’m not able to help you with that at this time.
I have my own issues that I need to prioritize right now.
That’s not going to work for me.
4. Finally, let them know that they are never far from your thoughts and end the conversation. Do not allow it to open again. Leave, or hang up if you have to.
5. Trust that things will be OK. And that saying no may be painful, but it will not mean the end of the world.