Helping A Financially Struggling Co-Worker
April 23, 2013 7:16 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to help out a co-worker who is financially struggling?

I have a co-worker that I've known for nearly three years now. This co-worker's my age (read: early 20s), we enjoy each other's company, and my co-worker confided in me (and other friends in the office) that they were financially struggling.

This co-worker doesn't have any money on their credit card that they can use, they eat their SO's leftovers and haven't been consuming much of anything else, SO doesn't offer to help out financially, the individual has been cut off from their parents, and they won't receive a paycheque until the middle of May. To make matters worse, $1500 worth of personal belongings were also stolen.

I'm not too sure what I can do, but I'd really like to help this co-worker out. I want them to know that they are not alone in this and that things will get better. They have been quite sad lately because of their circumstances and I would like to reach out and hopefully help get this co-worker by until next month. I am not Donald Trump by any means, but I was thinking of a gift card to the local grocery store. Would this be okay? If so, how much? If this isn't okay, what else can I do to help them out?

It's difficult to know what to say or do to help a friend out in this situation. I really struggled with giving advice and apologized for that, it's hard because words aren't always enough (although listening helps!) when someone's going through something like this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is exactly the right question.

I think a gift card to the local grocery store is perfectly appropriate. You could also give a card to a discount store such as Target/Wal-Mart that has groceries as well as household items so they could replace some of what was stolen. A Wal-Mart card could even buy gasoline. The amount should be as much as their needs require and your means permit.

It seems that you have a pretty good relationship with this co-worker, so you can just find a discrete way to give them the card. You could also give it anonymously (this would be more blessed IMO). Mid-May is a few weeks away - you may need to do more than one card.

Beyond the gift card, maybe you could also bring in lunch to share if you can do so without drawing attention. Can you share rides to work together? If your friend's situation is this tight, every small thing adds up.

Regarding what to say, sometimes there is nothing to say. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be silent and weep with our friend.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:27 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Gift cards are a great idea, and I'm sure it would be helpful and appreciated. Aim for a discount store, grocery store or gas station.

As for little things, can you bring in lunches for both of you? Or invite your coworker over for dinner regularly and send him/her home with leftovers? Depending on what was stolen, can you help by lending or giving away things you own? Are there toiletries (toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo, etc) that you can contribute?

I've had a couple friends in similar situations. They always seemed embarrassed to be accepting help, but things seemed to go smoother when I just offered food and other items like it wasn't a big deal. "Oh, XYZ was on sale and I bought way more than I need - here, take this!"

Thanks for what you're doing. Everyone needs more people like you in their lives.
posted by JannaK at 7:44 PM on April 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

Everybody wants to be self-sufficient. Many times, people will, out of shame or pride or both, be reluctant to share word of their financial struggles, and even more reluctant to accept assistance. A monetary gift (or a gift with a large monetary value) can have unintended side effects in terms of shifting the balance of the relationship. The recipient may feel obligated to repay the gift or repay the giver in some other fashion (perhaps yard work, cleaning the house, or whatever their skill set may be), even if the gift was freely given without obligation. It's so hard to know how the recipient will react right away, let alone months later.

I would suggest giving this gift anonymously. Gift cards are nice, but cash is king. You don't know exactly what their needs are; they may be days from having the water shut off, and a Target card isn't going to help with that. Cash, in an envelope with an anonymous note of caring, is the way to go. Just make sure the intended recipient actually receives the envelope and it's not intercepted.

You don't know if this person has shared word of their struggle with anyone else; if they have, this gift could have come from anyone. If they haven't, you still don't know that, and so it gives them a sort of plausible mystery, which may be just the little thing that allows them to play "it could have come from anyone" and accept the help that is needed.

Just don't say something like "From your friends at ABC Company", because maybe you're the only one they've told, and now they think you shared the secret with your other coworkers.
posted by xedrik at 7:47 PM on April 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think an anonymous gift card is a wonderful idea. If it's anonymous, they can't refuse to accept it out of pride.

If you cook a lot, you could bring food into the office. Tanizaki's idea of lunch to share is great - you could also just bring in things like oranges, home-baked muffins (or store-bought), that are technically for everyone but which your co-worker will get to partake in - depending on how receptive coworker is to sharing lunch.

Depending on the nature of your relationship, you could invite your coworker and S/O for dinner?

Never mind, JannaK's got it.

You're a very kind person. Thanks for putting some goodness into the world.
posted by bunderful at 7:49 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

At my (small) office people often bring in things they tried but didn't like. "Hey coworker, I bought this giant bag of rice/beans and didn't care for it. You interested?"

Also you could bring in muffins or something "I got in the baking mood but there's no way I can eat all this before it goes bad, I'm leaving the muffin tray in the break room if you want some."
posted by HMSSM at 9:06 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree that saving face and retaining a sense of self-efficacy is, a stupid amount of time, more important than simply benefiting from an improvement to material conditions. Sounds to me like your coworker mostly wanted to unburden. S/he might be shocked by a gift like that.

A different, dignity-preserving thing you could do is maybe hook him/her up with a cash-in-hand job (babysitting, catering), if you know of one, or have an in. You could just mention it casually: "Hey, if you're interested, I just heard xyz is looking for abc". S/he's already told you about his/her issues, so, there's no surprise there, and you won't have crossed any boundaries - you'd be an intermediary, not a benefactor.

(you could keep an eye out for jobs like that, on craigslist or whatever or in your network)
posted by nelljie at 9:36 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Not saying that 'dignity' means anything really, except it seems to be important a lot of the time. People might be grateful in the moment, and resent you later, if you're identifiable, that is, and if they can't repay you soon.)
posted by nelljie at 9:49 PM on April 23, 2013

I don't see anything wrong with giving a gift card and/or cash. It might help to smooth things over by calling it an early (or late) birthday present.

Gift cards or cash are good in part to give them as much control or choice as possible. When I had a job and was experiencing serious financial duress and it was pretty obvious to others, I was sometimes offered things of zero use to me which I turned down not out of pride but because it would have created problems for me to accept them (for medical reasons -- like food that violated my dietary restrictions). I found it enormously frustrating because I was in desperate straights, I absolutely would have accepted help that actually was helpful for me, but I had to turn down these items to protect my welfare. I usually could not really explain. I imagine some people interpreted it as "pride." It wasn't.

So if at all possible, give cash or something as cash-like as possible (you can get Visa gift cards which can be spent anywhere Visa is accepted) or talk to them about what would work. If you know they need a specific thing and you can get it at discount, and with a coupon, from some place where you are a member and they are not (or whatever) that might leverage a small amount of money into something worth a lot more to them. But barring that, cash is probably the best thing.
posted by Michele in California at 10:08 PM on April 23, 2013

Another idea: if you or people at work are in bands, or perform in some other capacity, you could do a gig and donate the proceeds to replace the stolen equipment (another hook to hang the 'dignity' hat on. If such a hat indeed exists).
posted by nelljie at 10:22 PM on April 23, 2013

I was in a similar position to you once, and my colleagues and I handled it by having lots of food available. We'd make extra sandwiches or salad and then faux-complain that we'd made too much and would co-worker like some? Or we'd buy a big box of cream cakes and share them out in the staff room. We even went out for a meal once where one of us had a 2-for-1 coupon that got shared with the co-worker and then we all ordered too much food and pressed it onto each other. Done like this, it allowed her to save a little face as she wasn't (supposedly) the only person who was accepting, as we were all (supposedly) forcing one another to accept things.

I've heard of people bringing little samples of perfume, shampoo, etc into work and leaving an honesty box for charity. My sister worked with a woman who did Avon who always had samples of things to give away, and she'd leave them in a basket in the staffroom. Any money raised went to charity. I don't think much was raised, but it would give your co-worker the chance to pick up some necessary supplies for very cheap.

I'd be leery of forcing money on someone. Sharing food is a much more communal experience, whereas giving cash is singling this co-worker out for special attention, which she might not appreciate.
posted by Solomon at 12:23 AM on April 24, 2013

When I was young, my parents lived very much paycheck to paycheck and a little bit worse. In the middle of winter, we ran out of oil. My dad needed to wait a few days or a week for his paycheck to pay for the oil (we didn't qualify for oil assistance, either. He made something like $2 too much/month for that). He made some offhand comment to his boss.

Later that day or the next day, my mom saw an oil truck pull up and she ran out in tears saying she couldn't pay (she thought she had forgotten to cancel the delivery). The kind men said, "No, no, no. It's taken care of. Really. It' s okay."

It took years. I mean, like, over a decade and long after my dad and my boss both moved on from their old jobs for my mom to find out who had done it. And my dad didn't know either, despite making the comment to his boss --- he just forgot about it.

Point is, we all struggle some times. And we all need a little help sometimes. And people are sometimes really foolish about accepting help to save face or because they should have to do it on their own.


Leave a gift card for a grocery store on her desk with a note (probably typed so she won't recognize your handwriting) and say, simply, "Sorry times are rough. Hope this makes it a little easier," and don't speak of it again until she's long past the crisis and in a place where she may be able to do the same for someone else some day.

Don't feel awkward. And if she figures out it was you, shrug your shoulders and say, "I was glad to help."
posted by zizzle at 3:51 AM on April 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

Awhile back, a family in my neighborhood ran into difficult financial times. Job loss and medical needs conspired to put them in a tight fix. They happened to belong to the church my daughter and her fiance attended. As word got around the church about the family's situation, the church members began secretly passing the hat to put-together a donation to help them in what ever way was possible. But, so as to not embarrass the family, it was kept secret in the congregation.

When time came to give the money, they asked someone who the family wouldn't know (me) to deliver the envelope with the simple message that there were people who cared about them and wanted to help them.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:58 AM on April 24, 2013

SO doesn't offer to help out financially
$1500 worth of personal belongings were also stolen

If by SO you mean a live in boyfriend/girlfriend, then that worries me. Perhaps this is a much darker story. If it is possible that there could be abuse going on, you could help her best by giving her information about helplines and shelters and what abuse is.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:06 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Someone once did something nice for me and told me to pay it forward. So here is a grocery card/Target card/cash/whatever. Pay it forward someday, when you are able to to."

Nobody likes to mess with karma.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:45 AM on April 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm of two minds on this. I'm deeply disturbed that she thinks it's okay that her SO isn't helping her, especially if they live together. And that this seems to be a "tale of woe".

You are both the same age and presumably at the same station in your office, so why is she so much worse off than you are?

I'm not normally a cynic, I'm actually one of the softest touches around. But this had alarms going off for me.

If this person is really a friend, then get her a grocery store card and press it on her saying what SuperSquirrel said. I don't think you're going to get much resistance, considering that she's told you and "other friends in the office" that she's having issues.

But keep your eyes open, there are people in this world who know how to manipulate. If this starts being a soap opera, distance yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:49 AM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

I do think it's weird that this person is telling multiple coworkers that she's struggling financially (I only discuss finances with those I'm very close to). But, I wouldn't assume the worst of this person. You may be at the same station in your office, but your lives could be very different.

I grew up very poor and moved out of my parent's house when I was 17 (to go to college). I have since completely supported myself with no financial help from my parents (until my mother remarried and got a better job...then they helped me out financially once and I paid them back). I bought my own car, paid all my bills, rent, groceries, you name it. During college, I worked full time at a company where my paychecks would often bounce and I'd be set back for months.

I now have a great job that pays pretty well for my age and part of the country, but I'm still trying to play catch-up from the years of struggling. My credit is poor and I'm working to fix that. I have medical bills I'm still paying on from years ago (didn't have health insurance until about a year ago). I just recently paid off my car.

I have friends who are at the same station, career-wise, as I am, but who are not struggling nearly as much because they had financial help from their parents throughout college (and after, in some cases). When your parents pay for your car, car insurance, cell phone bill, and health insurance, it's easier to not feel that struggle.

All I'm saying is don't assume this person is trying to manipulate you just because you both have a similar job. That doesn't mean your situations are similar at all, and you don't know what they've been through. If they are your friend and you feel compelled to help, do so. An anonymous gift card would have been a god-send during my days of struggling. I think that's a wonderful idea.
posted by thisismyname at 8:05 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could also bring in any discount coupons or vouchers you have - maybe she can get some food or services cheaper, or a discount on some new equipment? A gift card and/or money are of course an excellent idea - she's lucky to have you as a caring coworker!
posted by EatMyHat at 11:25 PM on April 24, 2013

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