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How much financial help to give a family member?

Over at Get Rich Slowly, J.D. has a great post on dealing with a family financial crisis. Responding to a reader’s question asking how to stay out of the red when you’re faced with a job loss and dwindling statements, he brings up a similar problem his brother faced and is still struggling to overcome, and then he lists several points of good, commonsense financial advice. In the series of comments on this post, readers wandered away from coping with job loss to dealing with financially stressed, often dysfunctional family  members.

There’s no question that J.D.’s debt-avoidance strategies are great advice…but what do you do when the family member refuses to listen to any such advice?

For many years, SDXB (Semi-Demi-Ex-Boyfriend) has dispensed exactly that advice (and more) to his profligate daughter. She’s capable of earning a good living (she’s an RN), but she’s even more capable of spending mightily, and she seems unable to recognize the difference between “need” and “want.” A single mother with four children, she rents $2,500/month houses (in a market where you can get a very nice place for $1,000 to $1,200) so that every child has a separate bedroom…and of course, they couldn’t do without a pool! At one point she had five cell phones (until the provider cut her off for nonpayment). Cancel the cable? Unthinkable! The kids have to have it!! She wears expensive clothes, drives an expensive car, and had an (endlessly) expensive divorce. Three landlords have evicted her, and the repo man broke down one landlord’s garage door in his frenzy to repossess her car.

Already on the brink of financial ruin, she suffered a serious accident resulting in head injuries that made it impossible for her to work. She’s now on disability and our state’s half-baked answer to Medicaid. But she still refuses to budget, will not reconcile a bank account, declines to even try to understand anything about personal finance, and continues to try to live up to means that she no longer has.

SDXB has advised her, gone to court with her, helped her apply for welfare, helped her move, given her money he couldn’t afford to part with in retirement.

In some cases, I’m afraid, there’s a point where you have to stop. When you continue to give a person money while that person continues to indulge in irresponsible behavior, you’re not really helping the person. You may actually be making things worse, by underwriting the irresponsibility.

And while you certainly can’t be telling an adult how to behave, neither are you required to support self-destructive and irresponsible habits. No matter how much you love the person and feel responsible for the person’s well-being, you and your family member may be better off if you lay down some ground rules and stick to them.

What might those rules be? Depends on the situation, o’course. But here are a few possibilities:

The financially strapped family member agrees to get a job, even if it’s part-time and no matter how low-paid and “beneath” his or her status it may be.
The person develops a realistic budget that fits his or her current means.
The person moves into affordable housing. If the person can qualify for housing assistance, she or he will apply for it.
She or he agrees to eat at home, not in restaurants.
If the person can qualify for food assistance, he or she will apply for it.
The person disposes of all credit cards but one, and uses that as little as possible.
The person gets rid of all but one car and may, if possible, dispense with cars altogether and walk, ride bicycles, or use public transportation.
The person cancels cable or satellite TV.
She or he restricts phone service to a land line or to a cell phone—whichever is cheaper, but not both.
If no jobs are available in the person’s field, he or she will go back to school for vocational training in some industry that is hiring.
She or he agrees to limit the amount of time spent living in someone else’s home.
If the person has a drinking or substance abuse problem, that issue must be addressed within a specified period or assistance will stop.

Obviously, if a family member is disabled, sick, or mentally ill, it’s reasonable (maybe even a moral obligation) to provide much more support than you would for a person for a person with training, education, and the capacity to hold a job. My point here is that for a healthy, fully abled adult, responsible behavior should play a part in earning family members’ support.