Is borrowing money in a relationship this way a no-no?
August 7, 2010 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Is borrowing money early in a relationship out of line? How do I set boundaries and determine if I am definitely being taken advantage of?

I'm very confused and would love some clarity that is so often offered on this site. Though I'm not terribly young (31), I've never been in a long-term relationship- I've had quite a few dating/physical experiences, though. I'm not in a long-term relationship now, either, but I started dating a guy about a month ago, who immediately seemed to be smitten and claimed to want to be serious with me. But there are red flags...

The thing is, I'm living in China and this guy is Chinese. He is working-class, and speaks no English (so the cultural differences are even greater than they would be with a white-collar guy who knew some English/about the West). IN the beginning, he was super sweet, bringing me gifts of fruit and stuff, sending me text messages that he missed me. A little clingy, but that kind of thing is common with Chinese guys, I think. Originally I was supposed to be here short-term, but he told me he hoped I could stay and would miss me if I left. He talked about us getting a place together, and even getting married in the future! (these actually aren't neccesarily the red flags for me, just background. FWIW, Chinese people basically date in order to marry, esp. more traditional people.)

A few weeks in, he told me he'd been selected by one of his jobs (he has two) for a training session in another city which would enable him to get a certificate and a better job. He said he was going to ask his cousin, who he lives with, for the money. The next day he told me she gave him some of the money, but not all of it. He asked me to borrow the rest. I expressed reservations, and he said he wouldn't blame me if I didn't want to lend him the money. Finally, I did (it was a significant, if not huge, amount). And before this, he had asked me to buy cigarettes to give to his boss (exchanging of gifts in business/social settings is an important way to navigate social relationships in China.) I bought him the cigarettes.

He had told me he'd pay me back at the end of the month; before the end of the month, he had some problems at work (there was a large explosion at a worksite and people from his company where there, as was he). This was somehow related to him not getting paid. He said he didn't have the money yet, and himself just had a few dollars until he got paid. He also said his father was sick and needed some money for the hospital.I was a little worried about him not having enough money for basic things, so I told him I'd give him a little money and he didn't have to pay me back (this time I offered; he did not ask). He took it, but said he would pay me back. He expressed gratitude for the money and also was apologetic for borrowing it.

But then today, only a few days after I gave him that money, he asked me if I could buy cigarettes again, because another friend was coming to see him. I just wrote back, "no". Then I said, "It makes me sad that you would ask me that." He then apologized and told me not to buy them.

Am I dating a conman, a freeloader, or just someone who has no boundaries? Or maybe he's actually in need? Could this be a cultural thing? I gave him money because relatively, I have a lot more than him, but I'm not rich, at all. And I actually resent being asked for money at this stage in the relationship. (especially the cigarettes, today). I feel kind of foolish (and I know many of you reading this probably think I'm foolish as well).

I guess my question is, how do I tell if I am being taken advantage of or if this person is truly in need? I guess time will tell (if I stop lending him money). Or is this enough to just break up with him now?

Does anyone have experience with this? Please don't be too snarky, I'm honestly having a hard time.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Based on your foreigner status, he may assume you are rich (if not personally, then through family ties), and therefore asking for money is not a big deal. The two most uncomfortable (and sometimes dangerous) assumptions foreigners have about Americans is that they are 1) wealthy and 2) sexually "easy" (at least in the case of American women).
posted by availablelight at 11:30 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Cigarettes are cheap. That's not the problem. The problem is, this guy is financially irresponsible and he's taking advantage of your generosity. I can tell you that what he's doing is not normal in China, but understandable given that you're a foreigner. If you want to know whether he's taking you for a ride, stop giving him money and see what happens.
posted by smorange at 11:37 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

That would be a deal breaker for me. Just always say no. You will soon know if he is taking advantage of you. In my opinion he is very clearly attempting to take advantage. No more money.
posted by JayRwv at 11:55 AM on August 7, 2010

I think it's great that you have this kindness and generosity in you. I think you're also right that it's time to turn off the tap--any more and asymmetry and dependency issues would just be too much. You sound like you're both nice and aware, not foolish at all.

You may come out of this feeling that he was using you and you shouldn't have loaned the money, or you may come out of it being glad that you helped a person you care about. Regardless, if you move through life being generous first and suspicious only later, you'll have a bit less money but a lot more friends. I think you're doing it right.
posted by kprincehouse at 12:35 PM on August 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

This sounds similar to a con man who took a friend of mine. He said all kinds of wonderful things when they first got together...told her he "wanted to marry her someday" within two weeks of meeting her! Very overtly romantic. He also went out of his way to try to isolate her, driving off her friends. Within 20 minutes of meeting us, he had insulted both me and my husband, and was just generally rotten and unpleasant to us. (In my defense, I still spent time with her and talked on the phone, just never when he would be there. And it took her a *really* long time to explain why she was having such money troubles, after he started mooching.) She wasn't interested in hearing anything remotely negative about him, though, so there wasn't anything we could do besides be supportive as well as we could.

By the end of the relationship, she was paying his car payment, his rent, buying his groceries, and basically bankrupting herself to pay for his stuff. (Then one day she walked in on him having sex with her roommate; even the romantic protestations were a con. But at least she finally got out of that horrible relationship with the guy who was using her.)

I suspect you may already be kind of isolated.
posted by galadriel at 1:24 PM on August 7, 2010

I had a boyfriend from mainland China. He never borrowed money or asked me to buy him anything. It was a source of pride for him. If I offered to pay for something, he would adamantly say no. When he had a little money he would loan it to me, like the time I needed to have a tire fixed or for tuition. I paid him back, but there was no pressure or expectation on his part that I would pay him back. But if I tried to loan him money, he would not take it.

He was generous with me though, bringing me little gifts, like fruit. From my experience with this man, I am surprised that a Chinese man would ask for money. I would be leery of this guy.
posted by fifilaru at 5:22 PM on August 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you were at home and a new boyfriend started doing this, how would you feel? I would say never loan money you can't afford to lose. Loans to friends/lovers are always charged and frequently cause problems especially when the 'loan' becomes a 'gift' because the borrower doesn't act responsibly to repay it.
My superficial take is that this person either consciously or unconsciously sees you as an easy mark. I would be prepared to sever the relationship as who wants to be with someone who sees you primarily as source of money rather than a source of relationship.
I would never ask a lover for money for any reason unless I was flat broke and couldn't get home for bus fare or something similar.
I did loan serious money (for me) in a relationship twice to the same person. She paid it all back, kept her agreements and the relationship did eventually founder for other reasons. It was not a casual loan, but something we talked about for weeks with some acrimony before going through with it.
posted by diode at 5:44 PM on August 7, 2010

I don't think he sounds like he's on the up-and-up.

If he asks again, say you're now down to just what you need for survival and see how he takes it.
posted by batmonkey at 8:06 PM on August 7, 2010

as a broke guy who has dated women with more money: no. i would have never asked. the fact that he does is a really bad sign.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 8:32 PM on August 7, 2010

Sorry, OP. You've been played.

I grew up in Taiwan. If he had similarly dealings with a Chinese woman, someone from her family or the community would have shamed him very early on and/or pulled you aside to tell you he's trouble. Because you're a foreigner, and because of the economic disparity, people figure you're fair game. Odds are all the neighbors and coworkers knew exactly what was going on.

Related story-- I was visiting Beijing as a young woman (late 20's) and struck up a conversation with a local young woman about my age. She said she was studying English. We hung out for a few days and went on a day trip to Tienjin. I paid for the train fare, cab fare, meals, etc, because I could easily afford it. At the end of the "friendship" the smile came off, the business face went on, and she stuck out her hand asking for ~$100 as "tour guide fee" to help with her "school fees." Boy did I feel silly for not seeing that coming.

Another story, that happened to my husband-- A girl he was good friends with a few cities ago was having a hard time with a divorce- the guy was acting like a jackass and they had a 2 year old daughter. My husband gave her $2000 for the lawyer with no expectations for repayment. (He's frugal with himself, generous with everyone else, and had my blessing.) She pulled through the difficult circumstances, but it's been four years now and she has not talked to him since. He has called her once or twice to see how she was, has never mentioned the money, and she won't return his calls. He has told their mutual friends to tell her that he does not want the money back, he doesn't care about the money, he just wants to hear from her. Nada.

So, yeah, after learning the hard way a few times, my rule for lending money to a friend in need is -- always a gift, never a loan.

And the other lesson is -- people are weird about money.
posted by metaseeker at 12:49 AM on August 8, 2010

As far as direct advice goes:

Break up with him -- you don't owe him an explanation. He'll know that the jig is up.

Say goodbye to the money -- consider it full tuition paid for an advanced seminar in psychology and self-awareness, and move on.

The only way to get any money back would be if you had a personal relationship with someone in his family who is so embarrassed by his behavior that they will pay you out of their own pocket.

To address your specific questions:

>> Am I dating a conman, a freeloader, or just someone who has no boundaries? Or maybe he's actually in need? Could this be a cultural thing?

Rules and boundaries don't apply here, because this man and you are rooted in such disparate economic realities. He is trying to make his way by working the system, and to him, you are part of "the system".

This is a cultural thing insofar as the primary allegiance in Chinese culture is family (and lifelong friends close enough to be considered family). There's a pretty big distinction in obligations and expectations between how one deals with family vs. non-family. I would go as far as saying that non-family relationships are usually more akin to business relationships.

>> I guess my question is, how do I tell if I am being taken advantage of or if this person is truly in need? I guess time will tell (if I stop lending him money). Or is this enough to just break up with him now?

Take the fact that he even asked you for money, and add to that his flimsy excuses and tactic of testing you out with the cigarettes first before asking for the bigger sum... yes, break up with him now.

And I am so very sorry to hear that you are going through this. Nobody likes to feel taken advantage of, especially after being so trusting and supportive. Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for your part in this entanglement. It is already just a speed-bump in the road behind you.
posted by metaseeker at 1:33 AM on August 8, 2010

Speaking as an expat living abroad, this is one of a number of reasons I decided not to date locally. Its not something I am necessarily recommending for you, but it has saved me a lot of problems I've seen many of my friends go through.

When I do loan to others here (and I am asked often), I ask for a clear time-frame of when they expect to pay me back. I do not expect any payment to be returned - so in that sense I never give more than I can afford to gift, but I also will not give a second loan to someone who has not repaid the first.

Take it as a learning experience and for heaven's sake don't give out any more money til you've got the original amounts back.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:52 AM on August 9, 2010

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