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What to Do When a Relative Asks for Money

How to have a difficult talk without guilt or shame

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In a recent interview with George Mannes, a senior editor at AARP The Magazine, financial coach Tammy Lally offered practical advice on how to make difficult family talks go better.

Q: Let's say a grown child, nephew or niece calls asking for money. What do I do?

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A: Pause. Don't make a decision. Say, “Let me think that through and get back to you.” Put down the phone. A lot of times the person calling builds the story, and it's normally a catastrophe. And the family member gets plugged into the hardship — gets hijacked and stops thinking logically. So he or she might say [angrily], “What do you mean, you need money?” Or might say [in a panic], “What do you need? What do you need? All right, I'll send you the money!"

But what you have to do is take a step back from it. Ask yourself, What's my motive for giving — or denying — the money? And then, What's the motive behind that motive? And, What's the motive behind that motive?

Q: Give an example.

A: Am I doing it out of guilt? Maybe this is my nephew, and my brother wasn't a good teacher about money. And this person is struggling and I feel guilty. If that's why I'm doing it, I might ask myself, OK, am I causing more harm to my nephew by giving him the money?

Also, ask some questions to see what's really happening in the person's life. Start with, “I'm curious. How's your job? What's happening with you? What are your expenses?” It's having a conversation versus a reaction. There's a difference.

Q: What next?

A: You let the person talk. You can hear right away if a story is grounded in truth or in a bad pattern. You might say, “I'm willing to help you if you can't get up and get to work. Is there an illness? Is there a mental health crisis? But I'm not willing to keep throwing money at this when you're just out there doing whatever you want to do and not even examining what you're doing."

Q: Would it help to lecture about overspending?

A: When you lecture, you're coming from judgment: “I know better. You don't.” It creates a fight. Immediately it's going to put somebody on the defensive, and you're not going to get heard. So don't lecture. Don't be sarcastic. Drop the judgment, and then you can make a suggestion.

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Plus, most lectures are coming from a place of shame. So if those on the receiving end already feel bad about themselves, lectures can drive them into a deeper level of depression or addiction, if that's something already present.

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Q: What money talks are older people avoiding?

A: I have one set of clients, an older couple. They can't afford all these things they used to, like buying gifts for grandkids. Yet they were doing it anyhow, running up $15,000 in debt. And I said, “You have to share this with your children.” This is very hard, because there's a lot of shame, especially among older men, about having their kids pick up the tab.

You have to have the courage to say to your children, “Hey, here's what we can do. We can babysit the kids, but we can't financially go at the levels we used to go.” Acts of service are a wonderful love language that people respond well to.

Q: How do I ask my kids for financial help?

A: Make it an update, not a crisis: “Here are the facts. Here's where we are.” Don't put a demand on the children. It's more like, “We have a shortfall of $1,500 a month. And we are wondering if you could help us meet that or some of it. You don't have to tell us today.” The important thing is to take out as much emotion as you can. That's not easy; I get that. Just be aware of how emotionally charged the situation is.

Tammy Lally became a money coach after 17 years in the financial industry. Based in Washington, D.C., she is the author of Money Detox; her TEDx talk about money shame has had more than 2 million views.

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