For all that I supposedly know about money and personal finance, I learned this week that there is one thing that I still don’t know. I don’t know what to say to someone whose life is in crisis due to financial problems. Because money is so private, personal and (in this country, at least, taboo), do you say nothing at all? Do you change the subject rather than get drawn into problems you can’t fix? Do you try to offer advice? Is it like a death, where you say how sorry you are, offer to babysit the kids and bring over a casserole? I just don’t know.
A friend/neighbor (she’s not quite a good friend, but she is a good neighbor which makes this a bit more awkward because she’s not enough of a friend that I can just say anything to her and not worry about how it will be received) confided that they will be moving in the next couple of weeks and the house will be going up for sale. I asked why, assuming it was to get a bigger house or move to a better school district; something that happens every day. She started to cry and spilled out the whole story about how they had gotten into credit card debt, leased two cars a couple of years ago, gone on some lavish vacations, and refinanced the house to pay for a lot of wants. Her story isn’t that different from other people who try to keep up with the Joneses. I wasn’t too surprised because I know what they do for a living and I never believed that their salaries alone were covering their lifestyle. But I didn’t know it had gotten this out of control.
It all came to a head when her husband lost his job in September. He’s trying to find work, but has been unsuccessful. Rather than cut down their standard of living immediately, they tried to keep going as usual to keep the kids from realizing there was a problem. They figured he would be back at work in no time and no one need be the wiser. Well, six months down the road and they can’t make the minimum payments on anything. They had no savings and no emergency fund. There wasn’t even a retirement fund to raid. They’re putting the house up for sale and hope to sell before the bank can foreclose, but they know they won’t get what they owe. This woman’s life is in a shambles because of bad choices, but it’s still a terrible thing to have happen. Even though I wasn’t surprised, I was still sorry.
I didn’t know what to say as she stood there crying. There was a lot of advice I could offer; how to deal with creditors, how to scale back the lifestyle, how to bring in extra income, whom to talk to for help, and all the other things we talk about here at SavingAdvice. But she wasn’t asking for help and I didn’t want to give any for fear that she wouldn’t want me meddling in her business. She knows I write about financial topics, so I figured if she wanted advice she would ask.
People get touchy about money and I was afraid that, despite her confessions to me, any advice given on my part would be perceived as showing off or rubbing my good choices in her face. There is an unspoken rule in this country that we don’t talk about money. If someone brings it up, we’re supposed to change the subject. Even though I could probably help her control the crisis somewhat, I held back. I just made the vague offer that, “If there’s anything you need, let me know.” The same thing everyone says when faced with a situation for which there is no answer.
Thinking about it now, maybe I shouldn’t have held back. Maybe I should have just given her all the advice I had and tried to help her. My (and most people’s) first instinct is to help. But I also know that advice is meaningless without a willingness to change on the other end. And despite all that is happening, I didn’t sense a true willingness to change on her part; only a desire to get back to where they were before her husband lost his job. But if I could help, shouldn’t I at least offer? Would she want me to, or is it really none of my business? Would it be taboo to probe into her finances and offer advice? I still don’t know if I did the right thing.
I knew it would do no good to tell her that she’s not alone, that there are many people going through these same troubles. When you’re going through something like that, it’s of no comfort to know that you’re not alone. It doesn’t make your situation any better; it doesn’t bring back the house. So I didn’t say that, either. I didn’t change the subject because anything else we could talk about such as school, the upcoming party at the neighbor’s house, the mall being built down the road, etc. are all things that she will soon be missing out on. When your financial life goes down in flames, there’s really nothing to talk about that doesn’t remind you of what you’re losing.
Simply saying, “I’m sorry,” which is what I ended up saying, seemed inadequate. When someone is losing everything, “Sorry” just doesn’t seem to cover it. I know the other person on the other side is thinking, “How sorry can you be? It’s not happening to you. You’re probably just thanking heaven it’s me and not you.” And there’s some truth in that. When we say, “Sorry” in situations like this, we are sorry but we’re also very grateful that it’s not us. It makes for some awkward moments.
I think facing someone in financial crisis is most similar to facing someone who just had a close relative die. There’s nothing you can do or say to bring back what is lost. All you can do is let the person know that you are sorry for what they’re going through and offer to be there if they need anything. There’s no advice, no platitudes, no magic words that can make it better. Time has to take care of the rest.
The “For Sale” sign is in the yard now. I see them stacking moving boxes in the garage, getting ready to leave. I haven’t talked to her since that day. When we see each other at the mailbox or out in the yard, she gives me a tight little smile and a shrug, as if to say, “That’s the way it is.” I can tell she’s embarrassed to have confided in me; to have me know the real reason that the house is for sale. I’m glad in a way that I didn’t offer any advice. Likely it would have made the embarrassment and awkwardness worse. I’m pretty sure that her embarrassment at the whole situation means that I’ll never talk to her again. She won’t be coming back to visit. There’s nothing left to say except goodbye.
I’m sad because I really liked these people and I hate to see this happen to them. On the other hand, I know they could have prevented this. There were so many points along the line when they could and should have gotten things back under control. So, while I hate that it’s happening to them, I can’t feel completely sorry for them, either. Does that make me a bad person? Does it make me a bad person that I didn’t reach across the gulf of social etiquette that says we must never talk about money and offer to help them? I just don’t know and it bothers me that I don’t know how to deal with something like this.
I still don’t know what I should have said, but I know I need to work on it because I have a feeling that a lot of my friends, neighbors and family will soon be having financial troubles. Many of them are overextended, and with the economic problems right now, I’m not sure that some will make it. That means I’ll be facing these issues again in the coming months. It would be great if there was something wonderful to say. Maybe some great piece of wisdom to impart. But I think, “Sorry,” coupled with an offer to, “Let me know if you need anything,” is the best I’ll ever do. Everything else is too loaded with potential problems and embarrassment for all concerned.
Image courtesy of sfadden