Maybe it was a sudden job loss due to the pandemic, unexpected medical bills or just plain poor financial decision making—we all know someone struggling with their finances. What we may not know, though, is what to say to someone who is struggling financially.
When to give advice and when to hold your tongue
Not sure what to do when your friends and family make risky financial choices? Or maybe you really want to say or do something but don’t know how it will be received. Before handing out advice or money, consider these tips.
- Don’t assume—have an open and honest conversation. First things first, check your ears. Let’s say your friend or co-worker says they lost their credit card. Before letting them finish, you immediately jump in and tell them they should call their financial institution, cancel the card and request a new one. Fast forward a few seconds to when your friend finishes their story, telling you they already did everything you just said, and wrapped up the story with amusing details on what the person who found the card had tried purchasing. In addition to making sure you are listening when a friend or family member is sharing their financial problems with you, take time to sit down and have a conversation and ask questions like, “I’ve heard you say a few times that you’re really tight on money—what’s going on?” By asking and truly listening, you are not only being a good friend, but you are also setting the stage for the best way to move forward (being a listening ear or providing some kind of assistance).
- Check your motivation. Take a moment to really think about why you want to help your friends or family with their money problems. Humans are social beings, so giving advice is a natural way for us to share our experiences in hopes of helping others or influencing change. Sharing advice also helps us feel important, but it’s not always what’s best for the situation. If someone openly comes to you and asks for advice, then giving advice makes sense. If you have someone in your life making “bad choices” who “needs” your advice, your motivation is likely not helping someone else, but in a place of judgement and making assumptions that you know better than they do. This isn’t helpful and will lead to hurt feelings and stressed or broken relationships.
- Identify immediate versus future risks. All that being said, sometimes you may need to say something, especially when your loved one is making decisions that could negatively harm them, such as getting tripped up by one of these COVID-19 scams. If it seems like your friend or family member is falling for a scam, rather than call it out directly (which could be seen as demeaning), recommend that they call their bank, local authorities or verify information with government entities before acting.
- Determine the pros and cons for both parties. In non-scam situations, before offering your unsolicited advice, consider the positive impact for both you and your loved one, as well as the potential downsides. Think through how many people will be impacted by a potentially negative financial decision (such as kids) and how likely your loved one is to accept and follow your advice. Go ahead and write down your pros and cons before making a plan on how to solve financial problems in your family.
Ways to help family and friends with their finances
After you’ve decided whether or not you’re going to share advice, consider some other ways to help friends and family who are struggling financially.
- Create a bill-paying plan. Whether they already have a budget plan written up or they pay bills as they receive them, offer to sit down with your friend or family member to make a list of expenses and due dates so they can plan to pay the most pressing bills first. This exercise may also identify some expenses your loved one may determine they don’t need anymore (like seeing that they pay for three streaming services). Be sure to use this time just to identify expenses and not as a way to recommend budget cuts. This should be a judgement-free time meant to find out what bills need to be paid when.
- Help find resources. If your friend is out of a job due to the pandemic or other reasons, help them get connected with local resources like employment and welfare services, lenders offering COVID-19 relief options or credit/debt counselor resources. You could also round up a top 10 list of jobs in your area, whether you make it a serious or silly job list is up to you.
- Provide employment. Whether it’s yard work, deep cleaning your house or other odd jobs, offer to pay your friends or family to help you tackle your never-ending to-do list. You could even send the to-do list to your friend with the payment associated with each and let them pick and choose which, if any, they want to do.
- Give non-cash help. This can be in the form of gift cards to a store, bringing them a meal or asking them if they want something you plan to donate (such as clothes or kids’ toys).
- Give a cash gift. Giving cash is common for birthdays and holidays, so it’s not a stretch to want to give your friend or family member cash to help them through tough times. Be sure to let them know it’s a gift to avoid awkward “when will you need to be repaid” conversations. Don’t forget to consult with a financial advisor if you’re giving a large financial gift, as there could be tax implications.
- Loan money personally or co-sign for a loan. If you’re financially able, you may want to loan your friend money at a lower interest rate than they could get at a financial institution. Helping family members financially can lead to awkward (and sometimes tense) situations, so be sure to really think through whether or not lending money is right for the situation.
- DON’T provide investment tips/advice. Giving advice about handling finances and investing money are two VERY different animals. While giving advice about money may make sense for some situations, you should avoid giving advice about stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc. and leave it to the professionals.
While there is no simple guide for what to say in each situation, being supportive and letting your friends and family know that you are there with a listening ear can be the best way to help someone with financial problems.