The Moneyist: My mother has gone into debt helping her family in the Caribbean. How can I get her to put herself first?

United States

Dear Quentin,

My 53-year-old mother feels very financially responsible for her maternal family that continues to reside in our native Caribbean country. She brought me and my brother to this country two decades ago, and has since worked endlessly to provide for us. 

My brother and I have obtained college degrees, and now have great jobs because of her efforts. She has thankfully gotten to the point where she makes a good living even though she, unfortunately, continues to work what I feel is an excessive number of hours. 

She recently traveled back home to the Caribbean, and spent thousands of dollars on gifts alone for family and friends there. We made plans to go back later this year, but she told me that she didn’t want to go because she spends so much money there.

I don’t want to make her feel like I’m disrespecting her, but I am very concerned about her spending on our family. She says that she is investing for her retirement through her work, but I have no idea how much she has saved, or if this will be enough.

She is planning on moving back home once she retires, but how can she possibly calculate the cost of what it will take to keep giving money to her family? She owes thousands of dollars on one credit card, and I am planning on paying it off (not at her request).

I feel like I am enabling this behavior by helping her get out of the debt that she has accumulated. I do intend on taking care of her in her later years, and am afraid there will be nothing left of her own retirement money by the time that moment comes. 

Concerned & Annoyed Daughter

Dear Concerned,

You mother is a success with or without the ability to give money to her family back home. She is a success because she is who she is. She wants the best for other people, and she cares about her family, and has worked hard to support them. It clearly gives her a great deal of pleasure to help her mother and other family members, but it has come at a cost. 

She is risking both her financial security and her retirement plans. Clearly something has gone awry. Too many people expect too much from her, and she has stretched her finances to meet their expectations. Those expectations will grow and so will your mother’s credit-card bills if she doesn’t make some fundamental changes to her life. 

Imagine your mother grew vegetables and fruit in her garden, and used the proceeds from the sale of that produce as income. Now imagine that her garden was surrounded by a low fence, and she told her friends and family that they could have anything they wanted when they asked for it. That’s what she’s doing here: she’s giving her life’s work away.

Tell your mother, “I love you, mom, but unless you keep track of your expenditure, and budget, all of your hard work will have been for nothing.” She needs an independent third party to analyze her finances, and deal with the underlying cause of her giving. A therapist, financial adviser or, better yet, a financial therapist could give her the wakeup call she needs. 

No one can hold up the world for everyone else. If your grandmother needs medical care, how will your mother be able to help her if she has already written checks for everyone who asks? She needs to find the language to say no to people: “I’m saving for retirement and I need to take care of bills of my own.” Or, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Or, “No, it’s not possible.”

Or simply and finally, “No.”

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