When I asked recently about bad money habits you learned from your parents, you chimed in with stories of debt, despair and the bumpy roads you’ve taken to financial stability. But just because you (eventually) learned not to make the same mistakes your parents made doesn’t mean that your entire family tree is cured of its financial flaws.
Many of you pointed out that your parents or family members still struggle with their finances, which can make your interactions awkward at best—and unbearable at worst. And while it may feel easier to hide from your family instead of confronting them, setting boundaries to protect your own well being takes more than screening your phone calls. Here’s what to do if you need some breathing room between yourself and your family members’ money issues.
Ask questions and trust your gut
Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a financial therapist based in Michigan, says checking in with your own intuition can help you evaluate the situation. “It’s a little woo-woo,” she admits, but recommends asking yourself, “Is what they are saying or doing or sharing with me making me feel uncomfortable?” Being “bad” with money is so subjective that what sets off alarm signals in your own gut may not bother the person who’s overspending or carrying a lot of debt.
If you’re not sure someone has the financial literacy to act in their best interests, Bryan-Podvin recommends trying to connect with that person to see if they’re receptive to changing. She says you can use examples about “a friend” so as not call out your person directly. Something like “I had a friend who thought they were doing well because they kept up with their credit card balances, but they had a hard time when they applied for a mortgage” could open up a necessary conversation. “Try to sneak it in,” Bryan Podvin says.
Make it about you
If you want to avoid participating in someone’s financial activities, frame your reason for pulling back in terms of your own choice, not as a reaction to them.
Say for example, your parents want to take you to a fancy brunch, but you know they have a lot of credit card debt and tend to overdo it on spending. You could say something like, “I know you want to do this with me, and I appreciate your generosity, but it really makes me uncomfortable to do things that cost a lot of money.” If that doesn’t work, Bryan-Podvin says to take it a step further. You can say, “It’s uncomfortable for me to watch you spend money that I know you don’t have.
Emphasise the “me,” not the “you” so that you don’t lay blame and make the spender feel even worse about the conversation.
Prepare for awkward times of year
Birthdays and holidays can be particularly difficult when you and a family member don’t see eye to eye about money. You can suggest drawing names for a gift exchange with a price limit, choose a charitable cause, or to sponsor a family in need through a local organisation.
If you don’t want others to spend on gifts for you, you need to tell them in advance and explain it, Bryan-Podvin recommends. “If you really need to drive it home, you can say you’re not accepting gifts, and if you receive one, you’ll give it back.”
Draw a line if you have to
So maybe mum and dad aren’t taking the hint. It’s time to draw a firmer boundary. Bryan-Podvin says to remember that you can’t change someone’s spending, but you can disengage from that activity. You can say “I love you and want to spend time with you” she said, “But I won’t participate in watching you engage in these activities.” You can suggest an alternate activity—like making dinner at home instead of going out—but if they don’t take you up on the offer, Bryan-Podvin says you ultimately get to decide if you want to be a witness to their behaviour.
Bryan-Podvin sees a lot of clients who have had to pull back on their relationships with their siblings because of their financial choices. If you get to this point, she says it’s important not to shame the person for their financial choices. “Lead by example,” she says. “You can drop some pretty solid breadcrumbs” about good behaviour you’ve exhibited, or offer to lend them personal finance books or tools you’ve learned from.
A final bit of advice from Bryan-Podvin: Remember you’re not alone, and that most people have money issues and hangups of some sort. If people are offended by the boundaries you put up to protect yourself from uncomfortable money behaviours, “Those are people who probably benefitted the most when you didn’t have any,” she says. “It’s more about them if they react [negatively] than it is about you.”