Financial Enabling: When Your Help Isn’t Helping

Do you know the difference between financial enabling and helping? Confession: I used to be a big-time financial enabler! My ex-fiancé, “Jeff,” spent every penny he made (and then some) plus he changed jobs the way some people change their socks. I was young and in love, and I thought with enough support and encouragement, I could help Jeff become all that I thought he could be. Over the course of the seven-year relationship, I cleaned up countless financial messes for my then-fiancé. Unfortunately, the more I “helped” Jeff, the worse things became.

You see, my help wasn’t really helping him personally or financially. I shielded Jeff 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. But it wasn’t his fault, it was mine.

What’s the Difference Between Helping and Financial Enabling?

Helping is doing something for someone that they are unable to do for themselves. Enabling is doing something for someone that they can and should be doing for themselves.

As a Financial Dignity® Coach, 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 classic book by Dr. Henry Cloud, Boundaries.)

What are the signs of financial enabling?

  • The person expects you to help and uses guilt to try to manipulate you.
  • The person makes the same kinds of financial mistakes over and over.
  • The person seems to get worse, not better, after you help them.
  • You are suffering financially as a result of helping the other person.
  • The situation is a constant source of stress—and you feel bitter and resentful.

How Do You Break the Cycle of Financial Enabling?

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’re 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 might need to set up a reasonable timeline for change.  For example, let’s say 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. During your discussion, 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. It’s also imperative that you and your spouse present a united front when dealing with enabled grown children.

How to Help the Right Way

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.

Need help breaking the financial enabling cycle? Let’s chat!