How can I help my friend with his compulsive spending issues?
April 13, 2016 2:42 PM   Subscribe

My close friend M is struggling with compulsive spending (and other compulsive habits). I've just found out from a mutual friend that he's run out of money again. How can I help him help himself? What are some ways that I can support him emotionally without enabling his behaviours? (Details inside.)

M is an undergraduate student in his early 20s. In the 2 years that I've known him, he's had a clear pattern of impulsive spending. He has many nice, quality things and he and our friends often joke about how much he spends and how much he has.

M's best friend and roommate is C, who I am also close friends with. The 2 were supposed to go on a long hiking trip this summer but now it turns out that M is completely out of money and basically has an empty bank account. They might have to cancel the trip so that he can cover his rent over the 2 months they were supposed to be gone. In addition, M already owes C $1000 that she loaned him earlier this year. M's parents (and I think other people) have bailed him out before when he ran out of money for food or rent, but they might not bail him out again.

When our group of friends hangs out, we have a habit of "indulging" ourselves on a weekend with just hanging around, eating junk food, and generally enjoying ourselves without thinking about stressful things. But for me this is an occasional thing, and I can generally afford it because I have a full-time job. I worry that for him it's become more regular. I feel like M's spending has been normalized for so long because being a student is expensive, and we think of it as normal for students to not have any money. And I'm worried that I encouraged it by joking about "indulging" and by laughing off his spending habits as a funny personality trait.

In addition, I feel like M probably has other impulse control issues besides money. He has a lot of impulsive hookup sex with strangers, which I don't judge at all, but I do worry could be a sign of a larger, underlying problem. He's extremely sexually active and I know he's had periods where he skips class and other obligations so that he can sleep with multiple people in a short time (say 4 or 5 people in 2 days). When I read about impulse control disorder, all the bells are going off in my head.

This has all been part of his personality since I've known him, but it's seemed to become worse in the last 6 months or so. I've also found out from C that he failed 3 classes this term. C told me that he had to talk to an academic advisor after those results, and then from there he visited a doctor, and a counselor but from what I've heard there's been no follow-up after those initial visits.

I can only imagine the stress he's under now that this is finally coming to a head. And clearly given that he hid the scope of the problem from me and his best friend C, he must be feeling shame over what's happened.

Basically the point of all this explanation is this: How can I encourage or help M get the help I think he needs? How can I talk to him about these things without coming across as judging or disapproving, especially given his emotional state right now? Am I partially guilty for encouraging his habits, and how can I change that in the future?

Any tips you can give for C's role in this would also be appreciated, since she and I seem to be on the same page about wanting to help him but not knowing where to start.

(I apologize for the length, I tried to keep it as brief as possible without leaving out what feel like important details.)
posted by mr. manager to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You know, I don't think there is anything more that you or C can do. He's seen all the people he should see. C should probably kiss her $1000 goodbye. She's not going to get it back. Don't loan/give him any more money.

He's also NOT your responsibility, but you seem to feel like he is. I can't see anything you did in this that contributed.
posted by Stewriffic at 2:55 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

The compulsion to spend is a disease like any other.

Think of taking your friend to a Debtor's Anonymous meeting.

Read about it, find other's stories, and think about suggesting or taking your friend to a meeting. I've heard very good things about it.
posted by ManzanitaBeach at 3:10 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

You can't do the work for him. By all means, have a come to Jesus talk with him-- tell him you're worried and encourage him to get help from appropriate sources. But you should decide now how you want to handle things if he blows you off. You can't change other people, and you can't make them want help. You've written a lot about second hand accounts of his actions and your inferences about what's going on in his head, and next to nothing about how he actually feels about the situation. There may be a lot going on that you don't know about, and you can't assume he sees things the same way you do.

I think you may be enabling him to some extent but not in the way you think. You are not responsible for his behavior, and he could find plenty of other people to "indulge" with if he really wanted to. But it sounds like you and other people close to him are keeping him from feeling the full consequences of his actions and therefore making it less appealing for him to change. Seriously, why would C lend a known impulsive spender $1000? Who would want to get help when mom and dad and co. will bail them out? Helping people can sometimes involve a whole lot of butting out and letting people sort out their own problems with professional help as needed.
posted by fox problems at 3:20 PM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't think it is really possible to provide much help to people in this situation unless they ASK you for help and want to change. You can't force someone to change their spending habits unless you are, say, the parent of a minor and have control of their bank accounts or something like that. I think all you can do is NOT lend any money, no matter what. And, possibly, if you are a very close friend, have ONE sit-down talk where you say "Hey, I'm concerned about you! Is there anything (NON-MONETARY) I can do to support you). But I would not do this with an acquaintance and definitely do not offer money or anything else you are not actually willing to follow through on.

I'm a little unclear on why you feel guilty here. Hanging out with friends on the weekend and eating lots of junk food sounds neither expensive nor atypical for a college student. In any case, I think guilting your friend about eating habits and how he spends his leisure time is unlikely to produce positive results.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:20 PM on April 13, 2016

Sit down with him and tell him you care about him and are concerned about his behavior. Then ask him what he wants: does he want help? From you? In what form, if any?

Then listen to what he says (which might be "MYOB") and decide how to proceed from there.
posted by rtha at 3:25 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hey, I can kind of relate to feeling shameful, out of control, guilty like your friend might as I've been rather compulsive myself all through my 24 years.. I definitely have gotten into tough mental, selfish, toxic states where I'm compelled to same mistakes over and over and disappointing myself.

I definitely have long-term anxiety from those kinds of situations. I sometimes think about how much my dreams and goals fell apart due to this self-induced crisis. It has long-term effects...

If you were my friend right after a bad mistake, I would feel a combination of cringy, uncomfortable, inadequate or some other set of bad emotions when interacting with you. If we were very close, though, I'd want you to break through the BS and call me out on any bad behavior. I'd also want to be able to come fully clean about what happened knowing that you wouldn't ultimately quit the friendship. You can judge, be disappointed, but you'd still be a friend and there for me.

If I were you, I wouldn't give him money. I'd reach out to him to have a conversation about it. Somehow, revealing the full extent of an embarrassing/shameful secret to someone whom you know will ultimately be in your corner is a good first step in taking ownership.
posted by rhythm_queen at 3:40 PM on April 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

OH, and also, don't treat it more than what it is. Once addressing the intensity of what has happened, and if he seems to make strides to improve, don't overblow it or ask about it too much. Treat him normally, maybe go to the gym together (or some other healthy or positive activities) and talk about work, family, projects. I always like doing wholesome and productive activities once I've reached a 'bottom', so to speak. If he then wants to talk about how he's unhappy with his life, that's good if he takes ownership. It means a lot with friends who care...and if he doesn't appreciate that, or blows it off, I would cut it off.
posted by rhythm_queen at 3:43 PM on April 13, 2016

This is how I behaved when my depression was untreated (though I was not suffering from hypersexual behavior, which can have a relationship to mania). Get him to a doctor, help him get to a doctor, talk to him about how it's good to go to a doctor when things are off the rails rather than just soak in shame and paralysis until things get even worse.

Don't give him any money.

Those are the things you can do.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:57 PM on April 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

The bells are going off in my head that this might be manic behavior. Excessive spending and sexual behavior can be symptoms of a manic episode, not to mention failing classes. Hopefully he continues to see the counselor, no matter what the specific diagnosis ends up being. The best thing you can do as his friend is to be supportive and non-judgmental, and also to set really good, healthy boundaries. It's not your job to police his spending, or to lecture him about it, nor is it your fault or responsibility that this happened. This is way beyond you. Be involved in his life to the extent that you are able in a healthy way. Be kind, as he likely feels quite guilty and shameful about all of this, even if he's not able to express it outwardly. And keep your distance when you need to. Best of luck...
posted by reksb at 4:04 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nthing other folks. Overspending and sexual hijinks are common behaviors among some folks with bipolar disorder who are in a manic phase. IANAD but I hope he sees a doctor and ideally one with enough mental health expertise to rule out various things or diagnose them if need be.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:25 PM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Keeping in mind that A. You can't make him do anything and B. None of this is your fault.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:26 PM on April 13, 2016

It's hard to tell someone you think they need help without making them feel bad. Impossible, in some cases.

So you usually prioritize one or the other: you go intervention-style and try to convince them that they have a problem and should go get help (note: many things are not so easily fixed!), or you go the other route, basically minding your own business and being a supportive friend without worrying about the decisions your friend is making (as in, not pushing any further than something like "you seem stressed lately, is everything OK?"). Choosing which path to take is tricky and depends a lot on the personalities of people involved, the problem behaviour's potential for serious harm, how extremely different it is from the norm, how resistant your friend is likely to be, etc etc. Keep in mind that the intervention path has a very real risk of destroying the friendship, so it's best to save that for situations where you're seriously (and reasonably) concerned for their health.

You could try to split it down the middle and hint at things without being pushy, something like "hey, I just found out that (thing you do) can be a sign of mania/ADHD/whatever other underlying problem you suspect...have you ever thought about that?" or "it seems like you're doing (whatever) a lot more recently, is something wrong?"'s gonna be pretty hard to do that without making your friend defensive, so you may as well just commit to one path or the other.

I can't tell you which path to choose, but keep in mind that although his behaviours are destructive, they aren't life-threatening. Furthermore, being irresponsible with money, frequently engaging in casual sex, skipping classes and failing classes are not exactly abnormal behaviours for someone in their early 20s, even if he's a more extreme case than usual. On the other hand, they could be symptoms of a mental health issue, private stresses/family problems, substance abuse issues, etc. But at the same time, these are very private issues that not everyone wants to discuss with even close friends.

Whether you choose to go the intervention route or not, the absolute best way to be a good friend is to be supportive (verbally, not financially. Do NOT give or lend him money or offer him free rent, etc). Just keep hanging out with him, listening, asking about his day, etc....without making it obvious when he does something you think is a bad idea. If his behaviour is indeed a sign that he's going through a rough time, what he needs most right now is a non-judgmental support system.
posted by randomnity at 4:35 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

I was thinking Intervention as well. You're going to want to involve C in this specifically because she's most at risk. What if he brings home some internet rando and that person pilfers the flat? What if he gets flat broke and he can't pay his share of the rent? Is she strong enough to kick him out if it comes to that?

Yes, there's something going on, he's spiraling downward. Letting him do it is no service to him. C has the most sway here because she can lay down the law insofar as insisting that certain behaviors don't affect her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:05 PM on April 13, 2016

It is possible that his university has a help line where people can let the university know about problematic mental health issues of others. Please consider contacting them and they can reach out to him.
posted by k8t at 5:30 PM on April 13, 2016

From an anonymous commenter:
Binge sexual behavior could be a sign of mania, but it could also be just a coping mechanism that has become habitual. People who have anxiety, depression, and/or ADHD sometimes use things like casual sex (or drugs, or food, or the internet) in order to feel better about themselves, and to, for example, feel reassured that they're desirable and sexual people when they feel anxious or down. In time, seeking out sex can become a near-automatic response to stress. Whatever you want to call it, if it's interfering with his life in other ways then it sounds like he could benefit from therapy and/or a group like SMART Recovery, which does CBT-based help for compulsive behavior of all kinds, from shopping to sex to drugs. SSRIs can also help, actually, though of course they wouldn't be appropriate for a person with mania.

Anyway, regardless of whether he eventually gets diagnosed with depression or mania or ADHD or something else, you needn't and shouldn't offer him potential diagnoses. That's too easy for a layperson to mess up, especially given limited info, and it's sort of beside the point.

If you or C talk to him, I would suggest focusing mainly on the spending and on his blowing off class, unless you already talk about his sex life in detail or he volunteers info about it, and even then proceed with caution. Sex is so personal that it may be hard for him to hear any criticism of his sex life in the non-judgemental spirit of concern it's intended. And if your friend is a man who has sex with men, that's a particularly fine needle to thread. Men who are gay, bi, or otherwise have sex with men get a lot of slut-shaming messages from close friends and relatives and the culture at large. That can make it difficult for some to disentangle, on the one hand, behavior that some other people may disapprove of but which isn't really a problem, and on the other hand, behavior that is actually causing problems in their lives. If he brings up his sex life, you may want to keep it open-ended and just ask whether he feels in control and comfortable with the amount of sex he's having, or he feels "out of control" and like it's scaring him or interfering with his life.

You definitely shouldn't feel guilty or like an enabler, though I wouldn't spot him the money for the trip. You clearly care for him, but ultimately this stuff is his own responsibility to figure out and you'll feel better and actually probably be able to help more if you stick to your own boundaries and what you feel comfortable offering freely. You can certainly help by encouraging him to seek therapy and appropriate help, and by being a warm, non-judgemental ear and letting him confide in you without his having to feel ashamed.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:51 PM on April 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hug your friend and/or be in a loving state without talking to him when you spend time together. If you can do this M may be able to start talking about the emo side of this situation. Saying nothing at all can sometimes be the best and kindest thing and also the most difficult to do. M on some level knows what is going on to cause the tendency and its compassionate feeling without doing/saying that may get whatever drives this to be closer to M's awareness. M can perhaps in time, then begin addressing the underlying issue and you enhance your compassion ability, a win win.
posted by RelaxingOne at 9:02 PM on April 13, 2016

I just want to reinforce the recommendations to NOT mention any diagnostic labels or disorders AT ALL, please don’t do that, whatever route you choose, intervention style or hinting and asking questions style, please do not make any suggestions that his behaviour could be a sign of any specific issue or disorder with a diagnosis.

I’m saying this as someone who’s been in a similar situation to your friend here, and the last thing I would have wanted or needed is someone to slap a label on me under the guise of caring and friendly interest. It’s not just that it could be irritating to your friend and making him defensive - it’d be really presumptuous and useless and risky.

Leave it to him to go to the proper people IF he wants to get proper counselling and help - at best, since you mention C told you he had seen a counselor, then C (not you, because you didn’t hear it from him) could bring that up to ask him if he’s had follow ups, IF they’re already on familiar terms enough for that sort of talk, otherwise that could be invasive and intruding into his privacy (if C didn’t hear it from him and she’s not supposed to know that).

There are too many ifs here I know but it does all depend on how close these friendships are - you can absolutely tell a close friend that you’re concerned about him and ask him if he wants to talk, but just that, openly, straightforward, without getting into stuff you’re not supposed to know, and definitely without getting into stuff you wouldn’t be able to know.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:01 AM on April 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

One thing I wonder is if you and his other friends generally have more money than him? I would not be shocked if someone couldn't afford a two month backpacking trip - I'd be more shocked someone could. Is he trying maybe to "keep up with the Joneses" without the ability to do so?
posted by corb at 6:49 AM on April 14, 2016

Please let him hit rock bottom while he is still young and has no other responsibilities.
Don't suggest any diagnoses to him, just support him getting mental health help. If he expresses concern about his behavior or feelings and how they are affecting him, respond with support towards getting mental health treatment. Tell him you'll help him make the appointment. You'll help drive him there or go walk him there if it helps.
Don't worry about spending weekends relaxing and hanging out. There's nothing wrong with that. He needs friends he can just hang out with and do things that don't involve money, sex, or drugs.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:46 AM on April 14, 2016

Thank you everyone for your responses. I have a lot to think about and you've all helped a lot.

I've since learned that M was in fact given a mental health diagnosis recently and in retrospect it's starting to make sense. I wish I had seen the signs earlier and suggested that he seek help (although I of course do agree with everyone who pointed out that I need to avoid giving any input on specific diagnoses since I'm not in any way a professional). But at this point all I can do is offer support and (non-monetary) assistance and I feel much more prepared to do that now.
posted by mr. manager at 11:34 AM on April 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

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