How do I talk to my parent (or sibling) about addressing their debt?
A recent landmark study found that a whopping 77 million Americans have at least one debt in collections. So the odds are that someone very close to you is struggling with repayment. The anxiety and shame that result from living in the red can discourage people from reaching out for guidance. What should you do—and say—when that person is a close family member? Follow the four steps below to talk about and tackle this painful subject.
1. Show you care
Saying, “Oh, my God, Mom, how could you let this happen?” is only going to make your mother feel worse—and may even drive her to salve her hurt feelings with another online spending spree. Don’t judge—it’s the wrong emotional move, plus it won’t do any good. Instead, identify with her emotions: “Gosh, Mom, that must be incredibly stressful!”
2. Don’t go in with your elbows out
This will be incredibly hard for some of you, but the last thing you should do is roll up your sleeves and start going over your family member’s balance sheets, dictating austerity budgets or strategizing phone calls to creditors. Why? You’re violating her autonomy. Each party in a healthy relationship needs to maintain a sense of control. Your mom may be grateful for your help in the short run, but, ultimately, this scenario is ripe for resentment. What your loved one needs from you is emotional support, not purse-string management.
3. Don’t lend money or constantly pick up the tab
If you swoop in and pay your family member’s back taxes or zero out her credit card balance, you may have made her debt disappear, but odds are you haven’t solved her real problem—which may be habitual overspending, gambling, chronic unemployment, or any number of more fundamental issues. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule—such as extraordinary unforeseen medical bills or help for someone battling addiction. You’ll have to use your best judgment. If you offer to “loan” her the money, you haven’t really helped her—you’ve just kicked the can down the road, and probably created a testy family dynamic, to boot. On a smaller scale, always offering to pick up the tab for family meals or events can make your family member feel an uneasy sense of obligation to you, even if you never expect to be repaid. A better option is to…
4. Suggest activities that your loved one can truly afford
To you, seeing a movie or grabbing a beer may seem like a cheap social outing. For someone who is counting every penny, this means coming up with transportation money, plus the cost of a ticket or bar tab. Be sensitive to your family member’s cash-strapped situation. Invite your sister to your place for dinner and HBO, go over to your brother’s house to watch the game (and bring a six pack), or spend an afternoon gardening with your dad. The memories you’ll all make together won’t cost a thing.
One final note: If the debt is a severe and a long-term problem, your family member might benefit from expert guidance. Consider referring him to a 12-step organization like Debtors Anonymous or a nonprofit resource like the Financial Counseling Association of America (fcaa.org) or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (nfcc.org). You might also point him to the “Dealing with Debt” section of the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information site. These are all trusted sources for advice and information. (My book Get a Financial Life has more on what to do if you’re in serious debt. Pick up a copy for your family member, if it seems like something he’d welcome.) Offering help via a neutral third party will take your personal opinions out of the equation and could help you avoid conflict.