WWYD: My Parents Want My Hard-Earned Savings!

A Billfold-reader who prefers to remain anonymous wrote us the following:

Over the last three years or so I’ve managed to put $10,000 in a savings account. It’s something I’m really proud of because my parents have always stressed how important saving money is from a young age, and it makes their sacrifice all the more meaningful. (They paid for college, minus some $$ from scholarships, so that I would graduate without debt.) It’s money I’m holding onto for emergencies and deposits for an apartment hopefully within a year or so. (My salary still isn’t enough for me to move out on my own just yet, so I still live at home.)

Recently, I’ve had to spend a good chunk of change on major, unexpected expenses I won’t get into here, but I dipped into my savings and checking for pay for all of it, putting me just under $8,000 in my savings account.

Last week my dad approached me and said he and my mom want to retire to Florida and are looking at houses. They’re hoping my brother and I can each chip in $5,000 for the down payment. That will take a significant chunk out of the remainder of my savings, and will set me back a ton in terms of my Life Plan. Of course I feel incredibly guilty even thinking about saying no, and even my dad said something to the effect of “You have the money and we would do anything for you, and you can’t do this for us?”

How do I politely decline without seeming like a selfish prick? Or, do I suck it up and fork over the money? He didn’t mention paying me back, by the way. I’m trying to start a life, but I know they want to enjoy theirs as well. What’s my responsibility here? I should add one thing that frustrates me about this but I haven’t brought up to them: My brother makes triple what I do, and was recently bragging that his tax return was $9K. Why should I have to contribute as much as him?

I feel for you. Money can be as hard to save as weight is to lose. Managing to put together a five-figure cushion as a young, single person is very impressive, and you should be proud of yourself.

At the same time, your parents are not only your parents: it sounds like they have been for a while now your bank that doesn’t charge interest and your landlords who don’t charge rent. And now they’re asking you for something. When people approach us with a request, especially people who love us and especially when the request is money-related, they are making themselves vulnerable. It probably hurts your dad’s pride to some degree that he has to ask you about this at all; many fathers believe that their role is to be the Giving Tree.

It sounds very much like you need to have a conversation with your father where you lay the facts of your situation clear. You are grateful to your parents for everything they have done and continue to do for you. You want them to have a comfortable retirement; they deserve it. You appreciate, as well, that he is treating you as a fellow adult, not merely as a daughter, in having this conversation with you.

That said, you have $8,000, total, in the world, money you have earned, and kept, and resisted the many temptations to spend. He is asking for $5,000, or more than half of everything you have — money you were hoping to use on setting up your first apartment so that you could finally leave home — and without making clear whether the money is to be a gift or a loan.

Even after he fully understands your situation, he may still say, “Yes, and?” In which case, your options become:

A) grit your teeth and say yes, perhaps with the caveat that if you do this, he and your mom will help you out with getting that first apartment when the time comes. After all, your parents have saved you well over $5,000 in student loan debt and brokers’ fees over the years. Now that you are able, you are returning the favor. Sure, it comes at a real cost to you. What sacrifice worth making doesn’t?

B) grit your teeth and say no, understanding that your family may be mad at you, even mad enough that you find it more comfortable to move out sooner than you planned. Still, they raised you to take care of your money and to make intelligent, self-sustaining choices. That’s what you are doing. If your father’s request were reasonable, he wouldn’t feel defensive about it, whereas his guilt-tripping you indicates that he feels pretty defensive indeed. If the request isn’t reasonable, you are entirely within your rights to say no — you may even have an obligation to say no, out of respect for your own emotional health and financial well-being. And if you are polite but firm, they will hopefully respect your judgment, even if they do not agree with it.

C) bargain. $5,000 is a huge amount to you, whereas it’s a less dramatic fraction of your brother’s net worth. Perhaps he could pay a larger chunk of the $10,000 total and you could still contribute something. You could even agree to each pay 10% of your savings, or 20%, whatever percentage feels substantial without being crippling.

Since this is a “measure twice, cut once,” situation, when you think you’ve made a decision, sleep on it before acting. Ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?” Ask yourself, “What would I regret more, doing this or not doing it?” Talk to your brother, if you feel close enough to him. And maybe consider getting your stuff together to move out more quickly than you anticipated, regardless of how this goes. Seems like you could use a little bit of space from your family.

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