Debt, Personal Finance

Financial Crisis: What Do You Say?

house for sale

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

23 thoughts on “Financial Crisis: What Do You Say?

  1. You can’t change what happened or what was said. It would be a tough spot for anyone to be in.

    If it were me, I don’t think I would’ve given advice either. But, I would let them know that I’m thinking of them and praying that the situation will get better.

    You’re right in that they won’t change until they make the decision to change. And, I liken it to drug or alcohol abuse, most people won’t change until they’ve hit bottom. Until the pain of change is less than the pain of the same.

  2. For next time this happens maybe you can be ready with 2 or 3 local financial counselors who help people organize, deal and work their way out of dire circumstances.

  3. A lot of people would say I have a bad attitude, but it’s hard for me to have sympathy for people who overspend.

  4. Minimum Wage – I’m with you. Not that I like to see a family losing their home, but it is tough to have sympathy when they totally brought it upon themselves. If it was due to a medical crisis or job loss or some other problem not in their control, that’s one thing. But when it is due to leasing cars, lavish vacation and using their home equity as an ATM, that’s a whole different story.

    What do you say when you learn of that situation? I’d say nothing because they probably wouldn’t like to hear what I’d have to say. Just nod my head and say, “that’s too bad” and wish them luck.

  5. I have NO symphaty for people who lived beyound their means. When the times were great they enjoyed it, now they are paying for their own stupidity. Why not get a second or third job?

  6. I think that saying I’m sorry is really about the best you can do. You listened, you empathized. Short of throwing money down that rat-hole there’s nothing much you can do.

    I had a similar problem with visiting a business that was going out of business. I went there many times and got to know the owner. What do you say to a business owner going out of business? Do you pick over the stuff (I did) or does it seem unseemly? Do you give advice? I didn’t have any advice to give.

  7. I think you were right not to offer advice. When someone confides like that, offering advice feels like a slap in the face, and it’s really not what the other person is looking for.

    The best possible thing to do at this point would probably be to offer help – help move boxes, for example, or offer to babysit the kids so the parents can take some time to themselves. But, be careful not to get pushy, and try to keep from seeming judgemental (especially since you disapprove of their choices).

    Another thing that would go a long way is a nice note telling her that you’ll miss them as neighbors.

    I think it would be unwise to act like the conversation never happened – she will feel vulnerable and embarrassed.

  8. Also, if you do choose to loan money, BE CAREFUL. Make sure you have a contract, or maybe use one of those online sites that negotiates loans. It is an easy way to lose friends.

  9. The way I see it, debt is like a drug problem. People can go on and on about how they want to quit but they need to seek help for themselves. For the most part what we talk about here is common sense. Once someone decides they truly want help it’s not all that difficult to figure out what to do.

  10. Sounds like “Minimum Wage” above needs either (a) a better job or (b) a second job.

    A lot of our problems would be solved if we would put the same effort into work and resolution that we put into whining and crying.

  11. “I’m so sorry” is the only thing I can think to say in those circumstances.
    One can only hope that more people learn how to use all available resources and rescue themselves – or at least provide a couple months more breathing space – before life gets to that point.
    None of us want to see another foreclosed home down the street.

  12. Gee thanks, I have no marketable skills and no career-related experience so a better job is pretty unlikely.

    I spend three mornings a week hooked up to a machine so I can’t work during those hours. I don’t have a car or a drivers license so getting to and from a second job is difficult or impossible.

    For example, there are a lot of swing shift jobs that get out too late to catch a bus, or night shift jobs which get out too late to get to my medical appointments on time.

    I see all sorts of moneymaking opportunities on craigslist that r4equire a car or at least a license and it’s very depressing.

  13. along the lines of Juan Carlos’ suggestion, you could refer them to and they could get a better loan to get out of debt faster.

  14. I agree with Hilary’s post. The best thing you can do is offer some type of help with moving boxes, cleaning up, etc. Anything really. This is the kind of thing that usually breaks down that barrier of awkwardness. She may then feel comfortable enough to open up again and may even ask for advice. At least this way there is the possibility for some help to come to her. As was mentioned, it’s also true that people won’t change until they make a decision to change, but I believe there are a lot of people out there right now in the same situation that obviously just don’t know how to change. These can be the perfect opportunities for those of us who have some way to help, to do it at a time when the person may be at a point where they will actually take it to heart.

    Most of all if you decide to help, just be real like you have been in this post. People by and large mostly want to know that someone can understand them and meet them where they are.


  15. What I would say to anyone in any type of crisis (other than suicidal, which would require a dift. approach) is to say I’m sorry for their situation, let them know I’m there if they want to talk more, and ask if there is anything I can do to help. If they say no, I let them know to come to me later if there does end up being something.

    I don’t think giving unsolicited advice–about anything–is appropriate, but letting people know you are happy to share your views if they’re interested, or to lend an ear, or do whatever else you’re able to do is usually much appreciated.

    I think listening, not judging, and offering to be of support as you are able should they want it is the best one can do in such situations.

  16. Hilary’s advice is the best and kindest. However, I would NOT lend them money (unless you don’t mind never seeing it again). For me, stumbling upon Dave Ramsey was the bet thing that happened to my finances.

  17. Jennifer
    Since you are asking, perhaps you could just come out with something like “Gee, Suzie, I am really going to miss you. Look, if it would help you avoid ever having to go through this again, Let’s sit down over a coffee and figure out what it would take to sort things out.” Direct, non-judgmental. How she reacts is not your problem, but I’ve found that, just like after a death, the worst thing for someone in trouble is if nobody else understands. Talk about it. Be kind, but straight from the shoulder. Give her a chance to say “yes.”

  18. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with living comfortably. The straw that broke the camel’s back was her husband loosing his job and that is 98% of the time unforseeable.

    I agree that there are many ways to help that don’t involve money.

    Last but not least, if each person had a little more compassion for another person, I think we would be a better nation

  19. To solve the Financial Crisis:

    1. Fire the DNC (Do Nothing Congress) to include all incumbant repusivicans)
    2. Stop all aid to all countries who havent supported the US in the War on Terror.
    3. Flex more mustle on the world and demand they shape up or ship out.
    4, Shoiuld be #1. Kick the UN out of this country.

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