I used to be a financial enabler, big time. In my twenties, I was engaged to a guy with horrible money habits. He spent everything he made (and then some), was in and out of jobs, and even in and out of jail. I was young and in love, and I thought that with enough love and encouragement, I could help him be all that I thought he could be. So, over the course of seven years, I cleaned up countless financial messes and bailed out my fiance, both literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the more I “helped” him, the worse things became.
You see, my “help” wasn’t really helping him personally or financially. I was shielding him from the negative consequences of his financial misbehavior, so he never learned his lesson. I became bitter and resentful over always having to clean up his messes. We were more like mother and teenage son than true partners in the relationship.
But it wasn’t his fault, it was mine.
As a Financial Lifeguard, I see this situation come up during my coaching sessions with couples. Many times they are “helping” their irresponsible adult children and constantly bailing them out of their financial disasters. Throw grandchildren in the mix, and the grandparents feel guilty for not helping. It’s definitely a sensitive subject that can cause a lot of drama and conflict for a family. Fortunately, because of my personal experience, I’m able to assist people in breaking the vicious cycle of financial enabling. (I have to add here that personal counseling may also be needed to work out these issues in a family or relationship. I also highly recommend reading the book “Boundaries”.)
How to Stop Being a Financial Enabler
The first and hardest step to breaking this cycle is admitting that you are a financial enabler and you are part of the problem. You have been shielding your loved one from the financial consequences of their behavior, which isn’t a good thing for either of you.
Once you have reached this conclusion, you need to arrange a sit-down meeting to discuss the situation. Be prepared for the other person to be upset, and even to say that you are unloving or uncaring for letting them face their own consequences. Depending on the situation, you may need to set up a timeline for change. For example, if your 28 year old able-bodied son or daughter is still living at home, not paying any rent or otherwise contributing to the household expenses, then set a timeline that they must either move out or begin paying $X in rent to you within 60 or 90 days. The difficult part for you will be sticking to your timeline NO MATTER WHAT. It’s likely that the person will test you to see if you are serious, so be expecting it.
Now, please understand that I’m NOT saying that you should never help your loved ones when they are having a hard time. The above guidelines are for the repeat offender who is always in financial trouble and seems to get worse – not better – when you “help” them.
If you have a friend of relative who’s normally a very responsible person come to you because of an unforeseen situation, such as a job loss or divorce, by all means help them! But only assist them if you can afford to GIVE them the money (not lend it). If they happen to pay you back later when they get back on their feet, great. If not, don’t be offended by it. If you think you’ll be mad if they never pay you back the money, then don’t give it to them. Period. Many relationships have been ruined because of this very situation.
Are you – or have you been – a financial enabler? I’d love to hear your story of how you broke the cycle. If you’re needing more help with this, pick up a copy of my book, Money is Emotional: Prevent Your Heart from Hijacking Your Wallet.