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Do I Have to Help My In-laws Out Of Debt?

How much are we responsible for our parents?

Q: Dear APW,

My husband and I have little to complain about—we are recently married, we have great jobs, live in a great city, and have the best dog. We are both savers and budget very carefully each month to save as much money as possible for a future down payment/ kids/ other life expenses. That being said, we treat ourselves too. We prioritize experiences and are willing to spend on vacations to cool places, will also splurge on a few nice things occasionally, and we make all of those decisions together.

The problem: his parents are a different story. We had no idea how bad it really was (they hid it from husband) until they asked us for a loan recently. Husband was completely shocked at how bad the situation was when he started asking questions—and realized that they had taken out a second mortgage, taken out of their retirement savings, and depleted their savings. When he asked them where the money went, they said that they had paid for his sister’s masters degree (they did not pay for husband’s education), and they had co-signed on her apartment and since she is not employed, they were making the rent payments. They also racked up credit card debt on various purchases—including a graduation trip for their nephew to Spain, and a brand new sports car. We offered them a “loan” about six months ago to cover some of the immediate costs, but it is clear that it is not going to be paid back.

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We have both tried to get them to see a financial planner and even offered to go through the debt to help them sort it out. They give us various answers about having it under control, but then call us asking for more money. My sister-in-law is still unemployed and has zero interest in helping the situation, since she keeps asking them for money and they keep giving it to her. We agreed that we cannot loan them any more money until they try to actually make adjustments to their spending—which they are unwilling to do.

The real problem is that his parents make us feel so so so guilty for doing things for ourselves instead of helping them out of their debt. We carefully plan and want to enjoy our savings for trips and much needed stress relief from work. But we feel terrible spending $2500 on a vacation, when his parents remind us that they could really use that money to make their (second) mortgage payments. Are we supposed to dig into our savings to keep helping them out? Do we adjust our budgets in order to help them every month? Is this something that people factor into their financial planning—having to take care of their parents? Even if we have agreed not to loan them more money, we obviously love them very much and don’t want to see them in an even worse situation than they are in now. But at what cost? I know you marry into a family, but sometimes I feel like it’s unfair to just hand over money that we work hard to save just to have them spend it frivolously. But the alternative of refusing to loan them any more money isn’t working either and as the situation only gets worse, are we going to be left helping them out in the end anyway?

—Anonymous

A:

Dear Anonymous,

There is so much guilt and shame tied up in debt; I can’t help but feel sorry for your in-laws (yes, even despite the sports car). It’s easy to catalogue financial decisions into neat little “good” and “bad” columns, but the lived reality is so much messier. Just one slip, an assumption that you’ll “catch up next month,” and it all starts to stack up until you’re haunted for a good long while.

One of those easily catalogued “bad” decisions is your in-laws’ refusal to loop a financial advisor in on their debt. Bad! Until you think about how truly emotional money is, how we moralize the proper management of it, how utterly shameful it can feel to let someone see the full extent of your financial damage. That shit is hard.

Starting From Compassion

So try to move yourself at least a teensy bit into a place of compassion. Maybe they’ve made some “bad” (in quotes! even the car!) choices, but that doesn’t make them bad people. I know that you know that, but it’s important that they feeeel it in your handling of it. Otherwise, why would they open up and show you the full nitty gritty?

Besides, your decision to start from compassion will help your partner. He likely has all the same hard feelings you do, only mixed with love and obligation, making everything much more complex. It’s likely personal for him in a way that it won’t immediately be for you, and in that way, he might take on a bit of the guilt and shame his parents might feel about being in this mess.

Which is what makes this a little difficult for me to answer. All of those “likely”s and “might”s. I have no real grip on how your partner feels about all of this, no idea what his priorities are, and they’re undoubtedly more complicated. So that’s your first step: figure out how he feels.

Priority: Help Them Dig Out

If his top priority is helping them dig out, then cash handouts won’t do it. Getting his folks to let a trusted professional take a look and make a plan is a start. When they call asking for money, he can say, “Okay, I can bring you the cash at so-and-so’s office, where we’ll meet with a financial advisor.” From my own experience, “fix this and then I can help you,” isn’t inclined to work so well (and can sort of unintentionally contribute to the shame), but a little both/and, a little “fix this with me and I’ll help you,” is easier to swallow.

Another place to start is figuring out wtf is up with the sister. Is there a job on the horizon? Can she move in with someone to cut that expense? If these parents are anything like any of the parents I know, asking them to stop helping their child isn’t going to get you far.

Priority: Ease The Guilt

If instead his priority is to ease himself of guilt, then give them money. Not, like, a ton of it. And don’t expect it back, or expect it to go where you think it should. But even the drowning-in-debt gotta live and eat and occasionally order a pizza. I know that you resent giving them money, which is understandable. But maybe there’s room for compromise, a small bit budgeted every month which won’t hurt so bad when you’re planning on it and mentally consider it spent in advance. Because, yeah, unfortunately most of us are budgeting to take care of our parents or loved ones financially, in one way or another. We live in a deeply individualistic society, but we’re all interconnected in more ways than we admit.

Priority: Keep Out Of It

If it’s neither of those, but instead his top priority is to be left alone about the whole mess, don’t give them money. Don’t entertain their guilt trips. Don’t bother setting expectations they must meet in order to receive money. Just stop, cold turkey. When you feel guilty about it, remind yourself that this money wouldn’t actually go to the second mortgage. Remind yourself that guilt sucks, but so does the building resentment of watching your paycheck fly out the window every few weeks.

No Perfect Solutions

Those are the options, and you’ll notice none of them are perfect solutions. His folks will be resistant to a financial advisor, which means conversations, and checking your tone for judgment, and frankly just a whole ton of effort. Giving them money means less for vacations, and other things you’ve worked hard to save up for. Not giving them money doesn’t resolve your guilt.

Sometimes family conflicts (like budgets, actually!) aren’t about right answers, but instead priorities. You won’t be able to have it all, to help his parents, and also give them what they want, and also stay out of this mess and resentment free. Just be sure to start from a place of compassion. It doesn’t mean you have to give them money, but it’ll make it easier to trust your gut about what to do.

—LIZ MOORHEAD

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