What practical things can you do to help loved ones caught in a cycle of poverty
October 22, 2009 9:43 PM   Subscribe

As a follow-up to this question I asked last week... What *practical* things have you done as a loved one of friends or family that were struggling financially or were stuck in a cycle of poverty. Have you loaned money? Paid bills? Helped them write a budget? Let them move in? Bought them groceries? Filled up their gas tank? There must be other things I'm not thinking about. What advice would you give to a parent whose adult child was floundering?
posted by jeffreyclong to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A detailed plan is the most important step in breaking free from a cycle of poverty. If you are going to help them with immediate needs, then they need to promise to sit down with you and draft a feasible plan to live on their own. This will not just be a budget, it will be an invitation towards a self sustaining lifestyle.

Set them up for success, don't just cater to their most pressing financial hardships.
posted by pwally at 10:03 PM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

as an adult child who has floundered, it's kinda hard to say. as much as i've been super grateful to my folks for giving me money when i've asked (Dog bless em!) I have to admit that it's often only reinforced the cycle of poverty- it's not encouraged me to be more sensible, more able to be financially independent. but holy cripes have they bailed me out from time to time. nevertheless, i reckon giving them cash may be a mistake. no way for you to know where it's going to go..

now, paying more directly for things you know they need, that might be different. i know that having mounting bills, expenses, etc can really be a drain, a constant background anxiety that only makes things worse, only makes the future less manageable... so perhaps helping them keep their head above water is a good idea. and perhaps letting them move in is a great idea, too- if you can stand it. you'll get to be more a part of their day to day life, they won't have bills to pay, maybe they can get ahead and make a better go of it next time.

and encourage them to make a budget and stick to it! but perhaps you should get a third party to help them with that- they might be a little secretive and private about the screw ups of their past.

so: perhaps help them with bills (with a loose arrangement to fix you up in the future), invite them to stay with you if you have the space, help them with a budget. as for the cash money... perhaps not. that's often gotten me in even more trouble than i started off in.
posted by Philby at 10:05 PM on October 22, 2009

For my relative who got in a bad way to due bad 2nd mortgage and credit card debt compounded by a death in the family / medical bill crisis (b.t.w damn this country's medical insurance system) the following helped:

a loan(potentially gift) to stem the bleeding of urgent bills
having her write down everything that was owed including interest rates, due dates, etc...this uncovered 20 year old unpaid credit cards that were bleeding $50+ / month away each for no good reason.
figure out true income
use the snowball method to get rid of debts (e.g. pay a lot of small things off first, reduce the total number of creditors/ harassing phone calls, etc.., make the number manageable, stop 50-75$ late payment fees on bills that could have been paid off years ago). It might not be the most effective from a pure dollar perspective, but from a mental health focus, having fewer creditors was better than having less debt for some reason.
have her send a monthly update for the first few months for bill status
physically help clean up house top to bottom to have one thing working again / have something to take pride in (this was actually one of the best things we were able to do to help). This involved multiple dumpsters.

Now this was for someone who was normally okay, but got in a 10 year bad patch of spiraling debt and didn't know how to get out. She had a great job but VERY bad money sense and was willing to take advice. YMMV.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:28 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Role modelling good financial behaviour is another one. I know someone financially irresponsible because their parents were irresponsible - however, the parents were wealthy so they were protected from their own irresponsibility - the child did not have a large income and was surprised to learn the importance of balancing incoming and outgoing money. When you were at their stage in life how were you doing financially? What decisions did you make that were different to what they are making now? My twenties were incredibly difficult because my parents wanted me to be the first in my family to get a post-secondary education but I had to get loans (while working full-time) to afford it. I graduated with loans that were twice my annual income, as well as all the expenses of living as an adult and it killed me for over a decade. In the absence of a windfall I just had to wait for time to pay off those debts. My expenses when my children were in daycare were incredible, again I had no choice but the wait for them to grow up to be school age and cheaper. My parents could not understand how having 65% of my income going to just two expenses (student loans and daycare) were wiping me out because they had never had either expense. They could not offer useful advice except that I should do *something* about the problem - (I was at the time working over 60 hours a week at two jobs and eating very little).

Relationships can be another financial killer, are they choosing financially irresponsible partners and is that echoing your own relationship? That is a lot trickier, in that case, any attempt you make at helping them will be thwarted by the partner and I would recommend not helping them until the partner is on board.

If they move in, there must be a definite end date that is agreed to and adhered to. They should also be paying rent (even a nominal amount), it would be nice if you could afford to use that rent money to knock out one of their debts or let them use as their emergency fund when they move out.

Can you step back and discover what is perpetuating the cycle? If it is that income and expenses are out of whack can one be increased and one decreased? Does the lack of emergency funds mean that they can't cope with emergencies? Would these emergencies be escaped if there was a bit of capital available to them? My monthly budget was constantly messed up because I had an older car that was expensive on gas and frequently broke down. I purchased a cheap new car that was fuel efficient and it literally made all the difference in the world to my budget. Same as my heating bills used to kill me (oil delivery of $1000 a month) but buying a new high efficiency gas furnace paid for itself in savings in just two years. Without those two purchases I would be much further in the hole now, but I had to have the capital to get the savings.
posted by saucysault at 3:29 AM on October 23, 2009

I've never been in this situation, but here goes. I'd be inclined to help out with essentials that didn't cost much - taking round a casserole, carpooling to work, setting up an ebay account so they could sell stuff, etc. I wouldn't give them money for food unless they were really on the bread line and were too far away to pop round with a plate. Note my use of the word give - loaning money is one of the fastest ways to destroy a relationship in my finding. I also wouldn't give money for gas or other household bills. Turning the TV off is a great way to save on cable and electricity bills. I'd consider giving money to pay for necessary medical bills - gall bladder removal, yes. Boob job, no.

I'd also point them towards a copy of this book. It outlines a very simple, very effective way to get out of debt and stay out of debt. I've used it to good end.

There comes a point in life when a person has to take responsibility for the hole they've dug for themselves. It's not easy and it's not fun, but it's one of the fastest and most effective ways to learn life's lessons. Carrying someone will never teach them how to walk.
posted by Solomon at 4:08 AM on October 23, 2009

The problem with parents helping their adult children is usually not so much in how much/what help is given as in the way it's given. Because the person is their child, I think parents tend to take more responsibility than they should. I was a "floundering adult child" for many years, and while my mother did a lot to help me, at the same time she hindered me by expecting me to follow her advice (ie: let her meddle) all the time, the justification being that because I needed her help, I was not capable of making my own decisions. It seems logical on it's face but what happens is that I never felt like my life was my own, and that *I* was responsible for it, which made it harder to have the motivation to make the changes I needed to make.

Give what you want, and are able, to give. But give in the same spirit you would give to a neighbor or friend in need, with no strings attached, and with no sense of responsibility for the problems your child is having. It's natural as a parent to feel guilty if your child is floundering, but the reality is that they're an adult now, and you can't change or control them any more. If you made mistakes in the past, then come to terms with them and accept that that's past and no amount of money or support you give now or in the future can undo it.
posted by weesha at 5:56 AM on October 23, 2009

There is a link between time management and financial management too. The simply best and most loving thing someone could do for me right now is to once a week take all my children out of the house for a few hours as a standing date so I can catch up on paperwork. All my paperwork is in piles because every time I make a dent in it I am interrupted (or the children literally get into it).

I used to have a job with a desk, a phone and a computer and I was able to catch up on personal paperwork/bill paying on my lunch hour in a calm, organised environment. Now I am in a customer service job with variable hours where I am on my feet with no downtime and and then come home as the sole parent to a chaos-filled house with hungry children always interrupting me and I am demoralised that I will ever feel in control of my life and instead always lurch from crisis to crisis on very little sleep and no decompression time. If I had extra money I could throw it at the problem (buying babysitting and meals out) but since I have little time or money they are feeding each other in a destructive cycle.

Even if the person you know does not have children you could help them get organised by designating a box for all incoming mail and once a week getting together without distractions (TV on, phone ringing, other people in the house) and focus on going through the mail and paying bills at that time and budgeting for the upcoming week.
posted by saucysault at 6:01 AM on October 23, 2009

I provide free automotive repairs (they buy the parts).

Keeping a car going can be one of the most stressful things in the lives of those living on the edge of financial disaster. Think frantic, crying calls from the garage they took it to after getting an (entirely reasonable) $1000 estimate.

It's very rewarding.
posted by davey_darling at 6:13 AM on October 23, 2009

I think it depends on a lot of factors. Your relationship with them, their willingness to accept help, etc.

For people that have their act together and are still struggling to keep their head above water I would target specific areas where you can help. Free repairs, childcare, nutritious meals, whatever you can offer without embarrassing them. Tax help and volunteering to deal with creditors could also be a big help. You could help set up direct deposit, budgets, and such. Actual monetary gifts are more difficult to give and receive. I'd recommend gifting them something specific, like paying for daycare or a specific repair you know will crush them.
posted by fermezporte at 7:41 AM on October 23, 2009

I finished grad school a couple of years ago, up to my ears in student loan debts and credit card debt. I've been supporting myself for the last 10 years, at times more effectively than others. In no particular order, here are things my dad does to help me out from time to time:

  • Free automotive repairs, a la davey_darling. I write him a check for the parts, but he'll do the work on my car and my motorcycle in his free time, or help me do it and let me use his tools.
  • He shops at Costco constantly, so if I need something that's potentially a Costo item, he'll just add it to his list. These are things like toilet paper, paper towels, kleenex, coffee and he called me last night to see if I was going to need Halloween candy to hand out to kids in my neighborhood.
  • Free dog-sitting. If I had kids, I'm sure he would watch them for me, but he helps out a lot by watching my dog when I'm going to be away on vacation or not home enough for a few days running. He also feeds the dog while he's watching him, and sometimes gives me dog treats to take home for my dog.
  • Lets me fill up a growler at his kegerator anytime I want.

    This stuff works because he's able to help me out financially a bit in a subtle way without his wife really getting wind of it, and because I live near him. My boyfriend is a grad student, living across the country from his parents. His parents help him out financially in other ways, but these things will perhaps probably stop when he graduates and is pulling down a living wage, instead of a grad student stipend. Here are some things they do (that if my parents did for me, would be amazingly helpful):

  • Pay his car insurance and a AAA membership
  • Pay for other expenses as they come up, like a new laptop when he needed one
  • Send frequent care packages with things they think he'll like, or buy him things he needs in general, like clothes, shoes, etc. Christmas gifts also include restaurant or grocery store gift cards.
  • Pay repairs and maintenance on his car, which is the car they gave him in high school.
  • Take him/pay for him to go to the dentist and the doctor when he's in town visiting them.
  • Buy his airfare for him to visit home.

    I also share a cell phone plan with my dad, and he pays the bill. My boyfriend does the same with his parents. Eventually we'll probably get our own joint plan, but for now, that saves me a lot of money. My dad and I also sat down and wrote out a budget together, so he could understand exactly where my money goes and how and why it is that I'm pretty broke, despite working three jobs. I think that was helpful for him to feel like he wasn't enabling some sort of lavish lifestyle by say, buying me toilet paper.

    Looking at your question last week though, all of these little actions our parents take are pre-supposing that this isn't a permanent situation. We're both upwardly mobile, educated adults. I'm in a temporary bad situation because of years of compounding debt while I was getting my education, and my boyfriend has the opposite problem. He has no debt, and hardly any expenses, but just isn't really pulling down any money while he's in school. To help someone out of a cycle of poverty, that would have to include helping them get a job and/or an education if they didn't already have one, as a first priority.

  • posted by booknerd at 9:55 AM on October 23, 2009

    I have an older, retired relative who is having a tough time financially right now. My sibling and I tend to give practical gifts as presents, and we spend more than we would on regular gift-giving occasions. For example, last year for a birthday present, I sent a gift card to the local grocery store. My sibling bought this person two nice tires last year for Christmas.

    I wouldn't say this person is caught in a cycle of poverty, though. Just struggling a bit right now b/c of reduced income.
    posted by bluedaisy at 11:01 AM on October 23, 2009

    My best advice is to be realistic. Some people just need a bit of help while they struggle to (re)gain their footing. Others have greased feet and even if you held the ship stable, they wouldn't be able to stand until they're on their ass and finally decide to scrub off the grease.


    I left my husband when I was 21, with an infant and a toddler, a bit of job experience, and a few quarters of college. I had no money and no assets, and had let my financially irresponsible husband use my two credit cards beyond their limits and put me in debt. It took me years to dig out of the hole I was in, but I learned how to balance a checkbook when I was 12 and started babysitting and had been working and managing my own money ever since. My father took the position that he'd financially supported me through high school and he was done. My mother, on the other hand (with a lot more knowledge of the difficulties of single parenting) let me live in her house for months while she was working out of the country then subsidized a (cheap) place to live when she got back (she's too much of a control freak to share space with small children), bought me a <>
    My ex-girlfriend, on the other hand, is 43 years old now. She was daddy's princess growing up and was spoiled rotten: no chores, no punishments, no afterschool jobs. She has 3 sons, none of whom has she done the majority of the work to support and raise (the oldest was mostly raised by her parents, the second bounced from her to his father to foster care to his father's mother, the youngest went from her to his father's parents). She always seems to have some sort of medical problem or car problem or co-worker who's out to get her or other excuse for why she's lost another job, late with the rent, needs help with the phone bill, etc. She was raised in an upper-upper-middle-class household and her ideas of "squeezing by" or "pinching pennies" don't include buying used or no-name or low-end clothing or toys or store brand food items or cheaper cuts of meat. Her parents supported her sporadically in this lifestyle (with gifts of name brand clothes and boutique grooming products and $200 toys for the kids and the occasional cash&guilt). They shamed her for not standing on her own two feet, but they'd brought her up in this standard of living and not taught her about budgets or essentials or saving. She didn't have any idea how to live within her means and thought bosses were unreasonable for demanding strict times for being at work. At some point, we have to take responsibility for ourselves and our own choices as adults, but that is a heck of a lot easier when you've had some kind of preparation. Her daddy died a few years back and with none of her kids living with her, her mom has essentially stopped giving her any money. She's lost a couple of teeth, 3 kids, dozens of jobs, several friends, and I think it largely boils down to her upbringing.

    So, go with your gut. Do what you can without ill will, regret, or undermining yourself. Make sure the know-how is there to go with the tools, or the tools are useless.
    posted by notashroom at 2:29 PM on October 23, 2009

    Wow, that bizarrely cut out a chunk. The end of that paragraph should have read (approximately):

    "bought me a beater used car, helped occasionally with car repairs, unexpected expenses, and things my Food Stamps didn't cover (like shampoo, soap, pull-ups, shoes), while I got myself back in school and had a part time job. In a couple of years, I was mostly supporting myself and the kids (in a very minimalist lifestyle with used goods and generics), but I still needed her help for another few years for auto repairs or very occasionally a hundred or so toward rent. Five years ago she helped me with a deposit to buy a home, but other than that I haven't needed financial assistance from her in over 10 years, even for transmission repairs or kids' school trips. I'm 38 now."
    posted by notashroom at 2:40 PM on October 23, 2009

    The most important thing is keeping them stably housed. Once someone becomes homeless or transient (couch surfing, etc.) every other problem in their life becomes many, many times harder to solve.
    posted by Jacqueline at 7:16 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

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