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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Photo: weiswoman

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