While we all want to help our loved ones and friends, especially during a particularly turbulent time in their lives, there’s a point where our help is actually more destructive than beneficial in the long-run.
One particular area in which our assistance actually negatively affects our family and friends is when we enable others’ bad financial behaviors aka financial enabling.
Just to clarify, we’re not talking about supporting someone who is a minor, recently graduated from college, or was laid-off from their job. We’re specifically addressing those scenarios in which an adult relative, friend or romantic partner is capable of working or financing their own lifestyle, but chooses not to or is too lazy to hustle to earn their own money.
What does financial enabling look like?
Financial enablers are typically financially-stable individuals who tend to feel guilty about their wealth, especially when they see their loved ones or friends are struggling financially. However, some financial enablers live on the brink of bankruptcy, but feel guilty if they don’t help others with what little they may have.
Financial enabling can occur in any relationship, but it most commonly surfaces between parents and their adult children.
“Generally, parents like to think they’re altruistic and doing what’s best for their children, but it’s really satisfying their own needs,” says psychologist and author Gary Buffone. Part of the problem, Buffone says, is that there is no social norm stating when a parent can financially help their adult children and how much money they can give them.
In 2017, Kimberly Foss, president and founder of Empyrion Wealth Management, shared with the Wall Street Journal’s “Watching Your Wealth” podcast that she had one client whose adult son lived at home until he was 65 years old and another client who was financial enabling her grandson.
In the latter situation, the grandson was a straight-A student who was accepted into his first pick college. Unfortunately, the cost of tuition was too much for the family to swallow. Wanting the best for her family, Foss’ client gifted her grandson $20,000 toward his college expenses for the first year.
During that first year, Foss’ client regularly communicated with her grandson. He shared his report cards with her, updated her on his progress at school, etc. Toward the end of the year, their communication started to become more irregular.
That summer, the grandson asked his grandma for an additional $5,000 so he could participate in a study abroad program. Foss’ client inquired how the study abroad program went, but all her grandson would tell her was that it went fine.
In the fall, Foss’ client gave her grandson an additional $20,000 to pay for her grandson’s fall term expenses. While Foss’ client thought she was doing the right thing, something in her gut told her that there was something off about the situation. She had been asking her grandson questions, but he wasn’t giving her any answers anymore.
In the end, it came out that Foss’ client had been conned by her grandson. During his first year of school, he met a girl, flunked out of school his second year, and was using the money from his grandma to support himself and his girlfriend in an apartment they had moved into.
Warning Signs You’re Acting as a Financial Enabler
There are four warning signs your actions are indicative of financially enabling someone:
- You give money so often, your loved one or friend no longer tries to support themselves.
- You give money away even though you can’t afford it.
- You’re struggling financially, but your adult child is going on a shopping spree using your money.
- You’re resentful of the requests for money and how the money may be used, yet you still can’t seem to say “no” when asked for more money.
How to Stop Being a Financial Enabler
- To stop enabling bad financial behaviors, the first step is to admit to ourselves that we’re financially enabling our loved one or friend. We also have to acknowledge our actions are part of the problem. We don’t want to believe a loved one would manipulate us, but if you sense in your gut something is wrong, Foss recommends listening to that instinct. Even if we had a valid reason for helping a family member after they lost their job or went through a divorce, Foss says there’s a point in time when a life event is no longer an excuse for why someone needs financial assistance.
- Second, give yourself permission to say no to requests for money favors. Take note of money favors: Who is asking you? What is the situation? What time of day/year? Is there a pattern? You don’t always have to run to the rescue with your wallet. Support, advice or pointing friends and family in the direction of resources like the San Diego Financial Literacy Center, can be more helpful instead of furthering a potentially life-crippling habit.
- Third, if you do decide to give a loved one or friend some money, only give them what you can afford to lose. Before you give them any money, make sure your bills are paid, your needs are met and that you’re adding to your savings BEFORE you lend a large or small sum of money. “The biggest risk facing retirees these days is being a financial rescuer to their adult children,” says Tom Balcom, a certified financial planner in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida.
- Fourth, if you assist your children with their finances through college, slowly ease them into adulthood by having them take more responsibility for their finances. After they graduate college, have them take over paying their cell phone bill. After six months, have them take over their car insurance, etc.
- If you’re struggling to determine if someone is lazy or is truly incapable of making it on their own, involve your financial advisor or another family member to explain to the individual that you can no longer support them financially any longer. While Foss says it may sound harsh, the old adage is true: If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for the rest of his life. The same thing happens with our finances. We can’t rely on others to fund our lifestyle; we must learn to hustle and work hard to reach our goals.
Especially when it comes to adult children, funding daily expenses while they spend money shopping, vacationing and at restaurants, increases the odds those individuals will fall deep into credit card debt.
- If it would be detrimental to your family member or friend if you stop giving them money, consider asking them to do work around your home or yard in exchange for the cash. Especially if you planned on hiring a gardener or your 12-year-old neighbor to mow your lawn, consider exchanging cash for chores.
Financial Therapy Resources
Money is the number one source of stress for Americans, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), and it has been for years.
If you think you may have an unhealthy relationship with finances, one resource for you to check out is the Financial Therapy Association, which was created by the APA in 2010.
Financial therapy is a process in which therapists are equipped to help people understand what financial goals they have, and how their emotions and behaviors can act as hurdles to reaching those goals.
“In America, we all know what we should be doing: spending less and saving more for the future,” Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist, author, and professor said. “So more information about how to spend our money is not going to help. We need to look deeper at the emotional issues behind the problem.”