Helping a Friend in Need: What Are the Limits?
July 14, 2015 2:16 PM   Subscribe

A close friend of mine is going through some difficult financial times. I want to help as much as I can--and I have for a while now. But I'm worried that he's beginning to see me as an ATM and I'm beginning to feel guilty about saying no or putting limits on how much I will give. I need suggestions on how to draw an appropriate boundary between being helpful yet also not feeling used.

He is going through some hard times, including a brief period of unemployment, unpaid bills, falling behind on child support payments, no car insurance, and he is currently living (off and on) in his car. Early on, he would call me in desperation for money (for gas, for food, for meds from the pharmacy), and the amounts were (relatively) small enough that I could afford to cover him.

Over time, the requests and the amounts have increased as his personal situation lurches from one crisis to the next. It is clear that a bit of financial planning and obeying traffic laws (i.e., don't speed, especially when there's a state trooper around) would go a long way to alleviating the financial pressures and putting him on a course to long-term stability. Unfortunately, he resists my offers of help and my advice. He only wants money, he says, until he gets back on his feet and can pay me back. (Side note, as far as I know he's not a drug addict and he rarely drinks, so I'm confident he's not abusing.)

My questions are these: To what extent could I morally and ethically make my financial help contingent on him agreeing to certain terms? (Like sitting down with me and making a budget.) Or should the terms of friendship, charity, longsuffering, whatever--as well as a regard for his autonomy and sense of self-respect--dictate that I, within reason, help him out on his terms because he has asked and because I love him? (Note: I do have the means; none of his requests would imperil me financially.)

I want to help him, I don't want him to starve, I want him to feel in control of his life, and yet I don't want to feel like a cash machine without a sense that my help is making his life better and not helping him avoid making difficult decisions.
posted by Quaversalis to Human Relations (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What do YOU feel comfortable giving? What help would you want were you in his shoes? What would you advise one of us writing in with this situation?
posted by smorgasbord at 2:19 PM on July 14, 2015

To what extent could I morally and ethically make my financial help contingent on him agreeing to certain terms? (Like sitting down with me and making a budget.)

You can't. Taking on a parental role like this in your friend's life will kill your friendship. IMHO, the only way to preserve your relationship is to decide how much money you are willing to give your friend (either on a weekly, or monthly basis, or in toto), and give it freely as a gift, with no expectation of repayment.
posted by BrashTech at 2:20 PM on July 14, 2015 [22 favorites]

You know, it's OK not to give anymore. A possible script: "Hey Friend, I care for you and feel bad that you've fallen on such hard times. I can't help out financially anymore but I can offer emotional support and help you get more outside assistance."
posted by smorgasbord at 2:22 PM on July 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

Side note, as far as I know he's not a drug addict and he rarely drinks, so I'm confident he's not abusing.

I would not be so confident in that assumption. People fall on hard times without substance abuse, sure, but it sounds like this has been pretty catastrophic, pretty fast.

If you do decide to keep helping your friend, I would consider doing concrete physical things, like bringing him groceries or meeting him at the courthouse to take care of a fine.
posted by charmcityblues at 2:36 PM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: To what extent could I morally and ethically make my financial help contingent on him agreeing to certain terms?

I'm sorry this is hurting you, but you really can't do this to any extent at all. You're not his parent or guardian or spouse; you don't get to dangle carrots (or sticks, for that matter). So unless you're willing to start earmarking chunks of your paychecks for this person for the indefinite future, my opinion is that you have to draw your boundary here and now. If someone was helping me out like this on such an ongoing basis, I'd hope they would eventually realize that I was fucking up big time and just stop altogether. Assuming that someone is going to swoop down and save you whenever you're in a jam imperils your ability to pick up the pieces and live as an independently functioning adult. It's learned helplessness.

FTR, I went through exactly this with a long-since-vanished friend and she never did get it together, not for as long as I knew her. She just kept asking me for more and more money until the amounts she was requesting pitched out of my salary range. When I told her as much, she never spoke to me again (although for real, after not speaking to me for 7+ years, she recently sent me an email... asking for money). Sometimes people need to fall flat on their faces so they can find their own way up again. And if he's really, truly not addicted or substance-abusing, he already has a huge advantage over many, many other folks in similar situations.

If you really feel you must, send your friend one last check/envelope of cash, but make sure you include a list of resources for under- and unhoused folks in his area: Local shelters, options for free food and health care, ways to apply for short- and long-term assistance. Tell him to call 211. If you post his location and any mitigating factors that might qualify him for additional aid (veteran status, etc.), I'd be happy to dig around and put together a giant list of resources for him.

As painful as it is to make a break like this, the responsibility for his life and well-being doesn't belong to you and shouldn't be falling on your shoulders alone. Good luck, and please take care.
posted by divined by radio at 2:39 PM on July 14, 2015 [18 favorites]

It seems to me that you're running dry on your reserves of charity. Giving money to a friend isn't just a financial investment- it's an emotional one too.

I found myself in a similar situation not very long ago. I ended up having to cut that person off from all financial support simply because I was so invested in her ability to take care of herself that I was unwittingly enabling her to continue leaning heavily on me. Cutting her off actually salvaged our friendship! And, without me as a crutch, she finally found herself a stable living situation and a decent job.

If you feel like you're putting a disproportionate amount of effort into this friendship you may want to examine your own motives. What do you really want to get in exchange for helping him? (His continued friendship? Karmic bonus points?)

At the end of the day there is only so much you can do. "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink."
posted by contemporarySlob at 2:49 PM on July 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

he is currently living (off and on) in his car.

You could try to help connect him with local community resources that might help him develop more long-term stability. Instead of telling him what to do, you could try to help him find options in the community. The Homeless Survival Guide at the MeFi Wiki is designed to be a starting point and overview of community resources that may be available.
posted by Little Dawn at 2:52 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you ever considered the idea that you are a crutch and enabler? Maybe if he doesn't have a friend to bail him out of speeding tickets, he will learn not to speed. If not, then there's no hope for him and your friendship will be nothing more than one-sided transactions forever anyway. I mean, he's had ample opportunity to use your kindness to learn lessons and do better, but he clearly has not. You need to just cut him off and instead of feeling guilty like you are denying him help, you should realize that it may be the most help he's gotten in a while. You can offer to treat him to lunch every once in a while on your own terms, but the handouts at his request for things other than not starving just needs to end.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:19 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

His requests don't imperil you financially yet, but if things go on like this they will.

Considering that, it is completely appropriate for you to decide now what your limits are. If the first time you ever say no to him is when the gifts are starting to hurt you financially, then the message is that that is your only limit -- i.e. that you're willing to just keep giving right up until the point where it hurts you, and therefore, once your financial situation improves a bit, he can go right back to asking.

He does not have a right to your money. Your money is not his money. If he tries to make you feel bad for turning him down, or if his tone is more an expectation than a request, those are indications that he has started seeing your money as his money. Friendship does not mean that the other person gets to expect that you put them first and your own interests second, and if that's how he feels about you, what you have going on is not friendship. If, on the other hand, he respects your decisions about your own finances, whatever they end up being, you have a chance.

However, you can't make him "feel in control of his life." The only way you can hand over control of something to someone is if you had control of that thing to begin with, and you don't have control of his life. You can only give him control of things that you currently have control of -- so, basically, your money. All you can do if he declines to take your advice is not give him money, and if his judgment is as bad as you make it sound, why would the possibility of losing these gifts from you have any more effect on his behavior than the other risks he's run that have lost him money? The most likely outcome is that this would just put you in the position of judging him and him in the position of feeling judged.

So yeah, decide how much you are willing to give him per month, and let him know. If you actually see him starving in the street in spite of your monthly gift, you can reconsider. But I doubt that that's what'll happen.
posted by ostro at 3:20 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's really awesome that you want to help your friend. I hope he appreciates it and I hope that some day he is able to repay you (or pay it forward) somehow, too. I also really hope that he isn't coming to view you as an ATM. So, here's my advice.

First, figure out how much money you're willing to part with - daily, weekly, monthly, whatever - with absolutely no strings attached to it. And figure out how long you're willing to do that. Is this something you can/want to do for the next few weeks? Six months? Two years? Forever?

Be totally honest with yourself about how long you can sustain this without feeling resentful and without feeling increasingly like you deserve to have some say in how he lives his life. For me, that's a really short period of time - I can do one or two 'gifts' before I start to get pretty twitchy about whether the person is really looking for a job, whether they're being too prideful to accept other help, whether they really needed to buy X instead of paying for Y... and I know how quickly that turns to anger and resentfulness.

You CAN attach strings to money - but you need to be prepared for him to reject those terms and for things to get awkward and weird between the two of you (at best). From his perspective, you don't know, or understand, his priorities and why those things are important to him - and if you're willing to help with $X for one thing, why not for something else? What one person values most isn't the same as someone else - and money, and how we spend it, is no different.

Second, think about whether there's some other way(s) that you can help. Accompany him to a social service agency to apply for food/shelter/income support/medical care/whatever. Print off a list of resources/agencies for him. Refilling his coffee charge card. Doing his laundry for him once a week. Bringing him dinner twice a week. If there's nothing else you're willing/able to do for him, that's okay too! As a friend, he may value having a coffee with you once a week and being able to chat about how things are going.

Third, sit down with him and lay it out. "Bill, I am really worried about you and I know things have been rough this past year. I am really glad that I've been able to help out from time to time, as your friend, and I need to be honest with you. I've been looking over my finances and have realized that I need to redo my budget. I can afford to help you out with $X every [time frame] but I can't give you any more than that. I really want to help you out though. Would it be okay if I [discuss non-financial ways you can help]? Or [other non-financial ways]?"

If you want to stop the financial assistance altogether, I'd go with, "I realized that I can only afford to help you out with $X until the end of [month] and then I have to stop. I'm willing to help you do some research to figure out how to get the stuff you need in the meantime, but I absolutely can't help financially beyond [date]."

If he rejects your non-financial offers, just nod and say, "The door is always open if you change your mind. Hey, do you want to grab a coffee?" He may cut you off. He may need time to be angry (especially if he feels somewhat entitled to your financial help).

Stick to whatever you said. No wiggle room. Keep your boundaries tight!

I may sound really optimistic when I say that there are probably a decent number of social services agencies that can help your friend - and have the experience to do so - but ultimately a support team of professionals can do far, far more than you can to help him. They can also do so without trying to preserve a friendship. It may also require him to be really honest with himself about where he is in his life right now - and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
posted by VioletU at 4:01 PM on July 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this dynamic has already irreparably harmed your friendship.

It is very likely he will never pay you back, just speaking from my experience and many many stories i've heard from family, friends, and on this site.

I agree with VioletU that you can attach strings to the money. It's not like immoral or evil or anything. But be prepared for:

A. Them to be ignored or gamed, especially if it's "you can have Y now if you do X after" and not "You can have Y if i have proof of X"
B. It to destroy your friendship.

The thing is, i'm sort of on team it's-too-late anyways. The dynamic of your friendship is probably already fucked. So doing that is basically pushing your hand down on the top of the george foreman to watch the juices squirt out for some sort of self satisfaction.

I've given a lot of things to people and never been paid back. I'm still friends with some of them. You basically have to ask yourself how much are you willing to give that you'll NEVER EVER EVER see again for sure? How much are you willing to give if, when you decide you don't want to anymore or can't, they'll cut off all contact and never talk to you again?

These are both really realistic scenarios in my opinion.

If he rejects your non-financial offers, just nod and say, "The door is always open if you change your mind. Hey, do you want to grab a coffee?" He may cut you off. He may need time to be angry (especially if he feels somewhat entitled to your financial help).

Yep yep yep.

It would take me a long time to warm back up to someone, if ever, if they rejected me at that point.
posted by emptythought at 4:13 PM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

Heh. It's like you're Germany and he's Greece.

He's not going to listen to your advice because he doesn't want advice; he wants money. That's it. So I think giving him conditions is likely to be met with harsh resistance, or wishy-washy agreement that he has no intention of following through on.

I also think telling him it's absolutely no trouble at all for you is detrimental. That makes it sound like you have so much money sitting around that you can't spend it; in that case, it's easy for resentment and entitlement to build up. Of course you could spend or save it. Of course you could use it for yourself. It IS a sacrifice. Don't downplay that, either to yourself or to him.

Also, he's in a weird gray zone here- it sounds like he's somewhat functional but not entirely. If he were really truly desperate, I guarantee you he'd have less pride and accept more conditions. He's not; ergo, he's not that truly desperate. He just thinks he needs a little more to get ahead or whatever. Probably he actually doesn't. I think the kindest thing is to let him keep his pride and his independence and stop giving him money, using the excuse that you need it for yourself. If he reacts badly to that, he's just being an asshole.
posted by quincunx at 4:27 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's possible that some of the frustration you are experiencing is related to hoping that this situation can be fixed with things like a budget and better driving habits, while also realizing that your friend seems stuck in what John Oliver refers to as "the fuck barrel."
a brief period of unemployment, unpaid bills, falling behind on child support payments, no car insurance, and he is currently living (off and on) in his car.
This is a recipe for neverending crisis - e.g. if a warrant gets issued for his arrest due to unpaid child support, his car might get impounded, and even if he gets his car back, driving without insurance means that if he injures anyone with his vehicle, he's potentially personally liable for the damage. Basically, whether you continue providing crisis money or not, this is a situation that sounds like it is only going to get worse.

It may be possible to reduce his child support obligation temporarily, and he might be eligible for bankruptcy and/or SSDI, but he would need to consult with the relevant local attorneys for advice about his legal options, and he may be able to get free initial consultations. Information about how to find an attorney and free and low-cost legal assistance is available at the MeFi Wiki Get a lawyer page. If it turns out that bankruptcy is a way to help him get clear of debts that are ruining his credit and making it nearly impossible for him to find stable housing, assisting him with the cost of a bankruptcy attorney might be a good way to maximize the impact of your financial support, if a free attorney isn't available in your community.
posted by Little Dawn at 5:22 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't give money to people who will only accept it on their terms.

Why didn't that set off alarm bells for you? His stipulations are the surest sign he's using you, that your money is enabling him and he feels irresponsibly entitled to your help.

He has child support payments and he can't figure out that speeding and breaking laws of the road will put him jeopardy? He's not worthy of your generosity. He's squandering it.

Honestly? It does sound like substance abuse.

If you think he is 100% sober on all fronts, then perhaps he has some mental illness or other cognitive type disease? Something does not add up here. You know this. Cut him off, force him to face whatever is going on and deal with it.

I too think the friendship is over regardless once you stop giving him money. Sorry.
posted by jbenben at 5:27 PM on July 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

All I have to contribute here is that you need to stop giving him cash.

You can still help him out, if you want to. Pay his electric bill for him (ie, he gives you the actual bill, you later write out a check payable to the electric company and mail it in). But no more cash.

Why? Because experience has shown me that people who are having problems are not good at handling cash. They are also often dishonest: they tell you they need $500 for rent - but if you give them $500, the money doesn't get spent on rent.

So: buy him groceries, pay his rent, etc, to whatever extent you can, and you want to. But no more cash.
posted by doctor tough love at 6:37 PM on July 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you are going to give money away unconditionally, give your money to the people that *really* need it; pay his child support for him. The children are blameless and yet suffering because he doesn't prioritise them. That "helps" him, one less bill to pay, but has a tangible, positive effect. Your friendship is over though, from your own description; you can keep paying him to be your friend temporarily until you stop paying. He would never do the same for you.
posted by saucysault at 6:48 PM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

I never loan money to friends unless I can afford to never see it again. I have been pleasantly surprised a few times when I got repaid, but in general it has made my life easier to treat all financial help to friends as a gift, regardless of their stated intentions to repay. As far as giving advice, it invariably falls on deaf ears. You may well lose this friend, perhaps because you stop giving them money, maybe because they are ashamed they can't pay you back. Lots of good advice above, and I know it is hard to set limits when it comes to friends, but don't let his problems take over your life too.
posted by TedW at 7:06 PM on July 14, 2015

This guy is not a friend, he's a parasite. He will sponge off of you until you stop him, stomp off in a huff, and either end up homeless or find someone else to sponge off of. You know at this point that giving him money is like throwing it in a bottomless pit--he's not getting better and it just gets wasted and makes you broker.

Yeah, he's not your friend any more. You're his mommy or sugar daddy or something, but this isn't friends. If you keep giving him money, consider him a dependent you can't put on your taxes and accept that all of your money is being flushed down the toilet. He won't be self-sufficient as long as you or anyone else is helping him.

"First, figure out how much money you're willing to part with - daily, weekly, monthly, whatever - with absolutely no strings attached to it. And figure out how long you're willing to do that. Is this something you can/want to do for the next few weeks? Six months? Two years? Forever?
Be totally honest with yourself about how long you can sustain this without feeling resentful and without feeling increasingly like you deserve to have some say in how he lives his life. "

Also, that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:42 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

It may be possible to reduce his child support obligation temporarily

Just in case anyone thinks it's monstrous to suggest reducing a child support obligation, I'll add that the way the fuck barrel works in this instance is that the state may be recouping public assistance instead of giving the money to the custodial parent, so in theory it's possible to seek a downward deviation of the child support obligation without taking anything away from the kids. The argument could be that it's in the children's best interest for their unhoused parent to get stable and be present in their lives.

This is not legal advice - the applicable laws vary by jurisdiction and the answer about what to do depends on the specific facts of your friend's situation. A lawyer in your state, and most likely a legal aid attorney, may be able to offer legal advice about how your friend can petition the court.
posted by Little Dawn at 11:28 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't loan money to friends; I've seen that outright kill friendships. If I can afford it, if my friends need help, I'll give money to friends. But I make sure it's clear it's a gift ("this is not a loan, it is a gift") and that if they feel like giving me money in approximately that amount someday that'd be nice, but I won't be expecting it. I find it helps to not create resentment--for me, I don't know about them--if I have no expectation that I'll ever see that money again. Except inasmuch as that money was used so my friend is okay.

But, interesting note. I have also explained to friends that I find it somewhat dishonest when someone comes back again, in another crisis, asking to *borrow* money. I didn't object to the request, just the phrasing; said, "I'll give you money if you need it, but ask for a gift. You know it's a gift, and you've never given any money back. Don't ask me to loan you money when you are obviously not borrowing and repaying."

I'm not sure why, but that has stopped all requests for money when I have said it. I'm not great at diplomacy, but it didn't seem to affect the friendship. They just stopped asking for money (and I know they didn't pull out of the crisis cycle).

YMMV. I've also never apparently been one of the primary sources of income for someone in a permanent crisis cycle.
posted by galadriel at 12:48 AM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

(Side note: there are more forms of addictions, that can cause money-crisis cycles, than substance addiction.)
posted by galadriel at 1:00 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you love someone, and that person needs help, you have a moral obligation to help them, you do not have a moral obligation to give all of your money. Poverty leads to more poverty, and the crisis cycle is real. Also, accessing resources when homeless is a nightmare.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:28 PM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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