The story begins when Jake met Joan. Jake had a slight spending problem before he met Joan, but nothing that was insurmountable. His overspending was more of the “I’m young, kind of stupid, and think that I have my whole life to prepare for the future,” kind of overspending. Chances are that he would have outgrown it in a couple more years and moved on to more sensible ways. Before he met Joan, his debt level was manageable and could have been paid off with just a few months of belt-tightening.
Then he met Joan. Joan was even younger than Jake, but she had aspirations. She came from an affluent family (Jake came from a solidly middle-class family) and was in no way prepared to deal with a reduction in her standard of living. Joan missed the class about how you won’t live well those first years out of school because, oh yeah, you have no money. She also missed the class about how you have to work for a living.
Jake and Joan fell in love and got married after only four months together. Everyone was surprised because it was obvious that Joan had aspirations and no desire to work, while Jake had a job that he loved but which paid $45,000 per year. Hard to live an affluent lifestyle on that kind of money in the area where they lived. But marry they did. Then came the house that they loved, but couldn’t really afford, followed rapidly by two kids that they couldn’t really afford. In between and around all of that there were cars and clothes, cleaning ladies and lawn services, and expensive vacations. When the kids came, they had to have the best clothes, activities, and toys. All of this was egged on by Joan who wanted all the trimmings in life. Jake could have cared less about the stuff and the glitz. He would have been happy with a small house, no fancy stuff and just one or even zero kids.
Soon, Joan began to nag Jake to get a better job. So Jake worked more and spent more time away from home. He still wasn’t bringing in enough money so Joan nagged some more. Jake got a third job. Still not enough, but now she resented that he was spending so much time away from home. Jake couldn’t win and divorce was discussed. To those of us on the outside, it looked like divorce would be the best option. Joan was never going to let up and Jake was going to work himself to death trying to please her. We could all see how Joan was ruining Jake. He was tired all the time, cranky, and sinking deeper and deeper into despair.
Somehow they patched things up (for the kids’ sake) and kept going. The final straw came when Joan put the daughter into beauty pageants. Pageants are, evidently, really expensive. Whatever credit they had left was used to support the pageant habit. Then the house of cards started to crumble. Jake lost one job. Then had to take a pay cut but endure more travel at another. The house was foreclosed on. The cleaning lady was fired and some other cuts were made. Finally, Joan’s parents stepped in and started bailing them out.
This might have been a decent solution except that Jake hated being bailed out by his in-laws and the bailing out didn’t stop Joan from spending. Instead she just spent more. Infusion of money equaled more to spend. Rather than learning that there was a problem, she just kept going only now she was using her parents’ money and credit. Eventually, her father, who had more sense than her mother, put a stop to the money flow. Sink or swim, he told her.
They sank. Everything ended up being foreclosed, repo’ed, or sold. They moved into a rented trailer and currently are having trouble even making that payment. Jake still works like mad and rarely sees his kids. Divorce comes up regularly, but Jake feels that as long as his kids are young, he needs to stay with them. Joan has become bitter. The loss of her “lifestyle” has made her unhappy and she takes it out on Jake and anyone else who is close enough to listen. As a result, no one spends time with her, or Jake.
During all of this, Jake became more depressed and pulled away from those of us who had been close to him. We tried to help, in a variety of ways I talk about below, but none of it helped. I think he was just so overwhelmed and embarrassed that things had gotten so far out of control that he didn’t want to be with us. Well, that, and he was working almost sixteen hours a day by then so he had no time to socialize. When we did see Jake, all he talked about was the mess that was his life and marriage. He’s unhappy and in no way the same lovable Jake that we used to know and love.
While there’s a lot of blame and stupidity to go around in this story, it boils down to the fact that Joan wanted more than Jake could reasonably and realistically give and earn based on his job and skill set (and probably more than most men could give). Her need for the “lifestyle” ruined him financially and emotionally. She’s certainly suffered, too, but carefree, lovable Jake has all but disappeared. It’s been painful for us on the outside to watch, but ultimately we’ve realized that there is nothing we can do.
If there is ever a time when the bad habits of a spendy person threaten someone you love, here are a few of the things I’ve learned through this experience. (It’s not dissimilar from dealing with a loved one who has an addiction to drugs or alcohol.)
Realize That Unsolicited Advice Will Be Ignored
We all tried to help Jake. We tried giving him books on finance and debt reduction. We tried to talk to him about it. We tried to sound the alarm about Joan’s overspending. We offered to send the couple to Financial Peace University, or any other financial seminar of their choice. None of stuck.
We all know now that he probably never even heard us. He couldn’t take any advice we gave him because he wasn’t (and still isn’t) ready to deal with the root of the problem. Until he’s willing to confront Joan, the problem has no solution. All of our advice was for naught. We still had to try, of course, and any reasonable person would feel like they had to try to help a friend, too. But if you’re trying to help someone in a similar situation, just know going in that you’re going to be ignored until the person is ready to deal with the real problem.
You Can’t Bail Them Out
At one time or another, we all floated Jake small loans or we offered other help. We wanted so badly to help Jake that we checked common sense at the door. Of course none of our help fixed anything and only further enabled the problem. Again, we felt like we had to try but we now know that bailing them out simply wasn’t possible. If you face this situation, resist the urge to give money. If they aren’t actively working to cut expenses and get things under control, any monetary help you give will only be frittered away with the rest of the money.
Accept That You May Have To Distance Yourself
As much as it pained all of us, we finally had to admit that we just had to distance ourselves from Jake and Joan. Both of them became so depressed and bitter that it began to affect the rest of us. Their problems are so huge and all-encompassing that it’s difficult to be with either of them. Joan resents those of us who are doing well and makes snarky comments. Jake is always exhausted and angry. For our sanity, those of us who loved him had to cut him loose. Should things ever turn around and he or she shows a willingness to get their lives back on track, we’ll be there to help him pick up the pieces, but for now there’s no more help we can give, and nothing we can do.
The Best You Can Do Is To Model A Better Life
Almost all of us in Jake’s inner circle are frugal and good with money. Joan hates us for that, but we try to lead by example. When given the chance, we try to show her and Jake that a good life can be lived without all of the things she believes are necessary. We try to choose frugal activities on the rare occasions we can get together, and we try to share positive experiences. So far it hasn’t helped, but we all hope that when Jake is finally ready to straighten things out that our examples will help him.
It’s hard to watch someone you love come to financial ruin, whether it’s because of their poor choices as an individual, as a couple, or through no fault of their own. It’s incredibly hard, though, to watch a previously fun-loving, happy person, come to ruin because of a person that they love. It’s a helpless feeling to watch your friend or family member pull away and sink deeper into the pit and to know there’s nothing you can do about it until he or she is willing to stop enabling the spendy person in their life. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do except to leave an open-ended, “I’ll be here when you’re ready” offer on the table.
(Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon)