Enabling the Perpetually Poor

By glblguy

The Repo man!
Photo by: Kevin Saff

This is a guest post from Momma who blogs at Tales from the road less traveled. Momma and her family are on the road from debt to financial independence and she writes about the journey on her blog. If you what you read, make sure you subscribe to her blog via her RSS feed or via email.

Donna Freedman at MSN Moneyblog wrote a piece highlighting Frugal Dad‘s post Language of the Perpetually Poor. This post really resonates with me, but not because I myself have spent carelessly and lived outside my means, but because I’ve been an enabler of that mentality in those I care about.

I come from an extremely close knit extended family. I’m the eldest of four children and have always done my best to take care of them. My middle brother, Jimmy, has had a pretty rough life. He got in with a tough crowd in high school, didn’t do well in school and dropped out, was in and out of juvenile detention centers, did drugs, drank, and a whole other laundry list of things.

Over the years, he’s gotten his act together. He has worked steadily, kept out of trouble, and met a wonderful woman that I am proud to call my sister. Along with her teenage daughter and their little boy, they’ve built a family.

In the beginning, they both had jobs and shared living space with her sister. After they had the baby, she quit work and things were tight. Then, Jimmy got a better job and they got a nifty new car (payment). Several months later, Jimmy was doing such a great job, they gave him a raise. They moved out onto their own and got a nifty new (half his take home pay) rent payment. Jimmy got another raise six months later, so they got another car (payment).

Over the last several years, they have steadily upgraded their standard of living with every pay increase, even though they weren’t able to afford the current standard of living they had. The marital problems from the stress over money caused a lot of sleepless nights for both of them… and for my husband and I.

For more than two years, Jimmy or his wife would call me and lament that a utility was getting ready to be turned off or they needed groceries for the week. Although I brought up the suggestion that Jimmy’s wife get a job, there were so many excuses. “Daycare costs more than I would make.” “If I put him in daycare, he’ll just be sick all the time and I’ll have to leave work to take care of him anyway.” “I’m not skilled and can’t do anything.” I wrote the checks anyway.

I’ve written checks for utilities, groceries, gas for the cars, auto insurance, and a dozen other excuses. I’ve hired Jimmy’s wife to do jobs I am perfectly capable of doing, just to make sure that my nephew had food and diapers. But then, an amazing thing happened.

They called in December and said that both cars were going to be repossessed in 3 days if they didn’t come up with $800 and fast. My husband and I sat down and had a long talk, and then we called and told Jimmy and his wife to come over. We sat them down at the kitchen table with a blank sheet of paper and I wrote down all of their expenses. Then I wrote down his income. They had NO idea that his income was $1000 less every month than what they were sending out the door. $600 of that was for car payments on vehicles that weren’t worth it. That was a real shake-up for them and their faces showed it.

We were very frank with Jimmy and his wife. We said we’d write one LAST check to pay off one vehicle completely if they let the other one be repossessed, but with two requirements. First, Jimmy’s wife had to get a job and contribute to the family’s finances, as there was no real way for him to increase his earnings or decrease their spending. Second, they had to provide us with a plan for keeping this from happening again in the future.

It’s been five months and they’re doing ok now. They’re managing on one car, though it hasn’t been easy and they will be purchasing another one soon, without payments! They’re both working and are, as they put it, getting into a place where they’re comfortable. Their stress levels are considerably lower and the marital problems seem to be easing.

Looking back, I can see how everyone in our family contributed to their entitlement and victim mentality by always bailing them out and handing them cash. When the Bank of Wes and Momma closed its doors, it’s amazing how quickly they were able to get themselves on the right track. I also feel a twinge of regret that we spent so many thousands of dollars bailing them out of tight places instead of trying to pay off our own debts. I’m always going to follow my instincts to help my loved ones as much as I can, but now I know better than to consider enabling irresponsible behaviors “helping”

31 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Enabling the Perpetually Poor”

  1. Laura Says:

    It can be hard to say no to family. It’s something I’m struggling with many times.

  2. Frugal Dad Says:

    Thanks for including me in your article. I’ve taken some heat over that post because many felt I was putting down poor people. In fact, I was trying to highlight a “poor mentality” that is so rampant in this country. My hope is that if people recognized their language was reflective of their attitudes then both would improve.

    I would never put down those who have legitimate struggles, because I have been there myself. In fact, many of us have at one point in our lives or another have wondered how the next bill would get paid, or how the next meal would be purchased.

    Much like you have done, I have helped family members with “poor mentalities” over the years. One in particular is a pack-a-day smoker who spends $150 a month on cigarettes, but had to borrow $200 from me to pay his light bill. We was fairly gracious about it, but told me as we were waiting at the utility company, “Thanks for doing this – sometimes us “little guys” just can’t make it these days.” I wanted to say so badly, “Well, if you quit smoking you could have nearly paid for this entire bill in one month.”

  3. Llama Money Says:

    I’m done lending / giving money to family. Once all loans are paid back, I’m done. I’m tired of being the bank. I’m tired of being the enabler. By making sure I’m the bank, I simply give other family members no reason to ever improve their financial situation.

    Good call on cutting these leeches off…. I bet you wish you’d done it much sooner. They would have learned a good lesson long ago, and you’d be quite a bit richer.

  4. Momma Says:

    Thanks for sharing my post with all of your readers, Gibble! I’m glad you thought it was good enough to post.

    @ Llama Money, I understand where you’re coming from, but I sure don’t think of them as leeches. I just think they had no real concept of what was really going on with their finances. They’ve made an amazing turn around since being made aware of the real numbers.

  5. Momma Says:

    @ Frugal Dad – I loved that post. I’ve been there. Most of my family has never left there. I offered to help my mother create a budget and track their spending. She said “there ain’t nothing to budget because there ain’t nothing coming in.” My stepdad works full time and so does she. You’re right about the “poor mentality” and there will never be help for it. So now, I just say no and move on. No use in banging my head on the wall.

  6. Mrs. Micah Says:

    @Momma, I think it’s great that you were willing/able to help them out with the financial planning AND with the car payment. I’m sure it made it much easier for them to get started, especially having the car.

  7. CindyS Says:

    I have to admit that I have BEEN one of those people in the past. And this year when it all hit the fan, my family would have baled me out but I said no. This time I was going to work through it myself, sink or swim because I needed to change my ways. It has been years since I have borrowed money from family or needed to but I apparently didn’t learn as I didn’t have an emergency fund when the emergencies started hitting last year. Now, I am building one at all costs and above all else.

  8. jamy Says:

    I certainly can relate this story with my own experiences, both side of the families, mine and hubby : ‘welfare’ mentality family members.


  9. Make Friends, Earn Money Says:

    Momma, thanks for a very touching post. It’s always hard to know what to do for the best in these situations and we’ve probably all had similar experiences. But we only learn as we go through life and it’s hard to turn away family, even when our head says that it won’t help them in the long term

  10. Trent Hamm Says:

    The language of the perpetually poor isn’t the result of a financial situation. It’s the result of a mindset. The mindset often leads to the financial situation, so people regularly confuse the two.

  11. Shanti @ Antishay Says:

    Beautiful post. I loved the post by Frugal Dad and Momma, this is just as good. Thanks for sharing your story!

  12. Dana Seilhan Says:

    If I could change one thing about this post I think I’d substitute “broke” for “poor” in the title. I kind of cringed as I followed a link over here because I thought I was going to see welfare-recipient-bashing or something. To me, “broke” connotes “I am making a living, but spending my money unwisely,” and isn’t remotely the same as being poor. Your mileage may vary.

  13. Kristen Says:

    Thanks for the great post. I think there are a lot of us who have been in a similar situation. I had a family member several years ago who got into financial trouble through a series of bad decisions. The family pitched in to help out, especially because a baby was involved. It’s a lot harder to say no when you know there’s a child in the picture. Fortunately, my family member was able to get back on track, but it was tough going for awhile … on all of us.

  14. Llama Money Says:

    Momma: I guess you wouldn’t think of them as leeches – it’s certainly very hard to do when you’re talking about your own family. From an outside perspective though, that’s exactly what is happening. Instead of sucking blood, they’re sucking up your money. Or rather, they were. Hopefully they stay “clean” ( and off your endless supply of cash ).

  15. Gayle Says:

    I’m still trying to get my parents to do this with my younger sister. They’re nearing retirement and won’t be able to because she, at 27, is still depending on them for nearly everything. She’s gotten better, I’ll give her that, but she knows exactly what she’s doing, which is why she doesn’t call Sissy for the bailout anymore. Because she knows I won’t do it. Which makes me feel doubly guilty because she’ll just goto our parents and they will do it, even though they can’t afford to.

  16. castocreations Says:

    Wow. What an incredible story! You and your hubby definitely did the right thing and I’m so impressed. I can’t stand the “poor” mentality. People don’t need to live outside their means…they just think they do.

  17. jdp Says:

    Re Frugal Dad’s article – couldn’t bash you for it – btdt and you were pretty much right :)

    and for this blogger – I’ve never understood how one could go to family. When I was in such poor straights (my own fault) I couldn’t say a word of it to my family. Good for you for finding something that helped you all and now that you’ve shared it maybe others won’t have to go through all you did and can skip the regrets :)

  18. AverageAK Says:

    Although I agree that you shouldn’t continually bail out those who choose not to live within their means, I take exception with your automatic insistence that your SIL go get a job.

    Did you carefully run the numbers for that? in many cases a person who has been a SAHM will NOT come out ahead of the costs of that peson actually working, but you have to run the numbers using the actual costs of working. Your family might be doing even better if she did reamain at home and they stayed within the bounds of a single income.

    You ruin a heartfelt and honest article with your slam on stay at home parenting. Don’t blindly accept that both parents working is necessarily the better choice. I cringe when people say things like “she should be contributing” Please! Raising a child IS contributing, and their problem was living above their means, not the fact that one of them was actualy raising their own child.

  19. Ashley Says:

    A lot of people get confused about daycare. Having someone care for your child while you work does not necessarily mean breaking the bank. She could get a part-time job at night while her husband watches the children. She can ask a neighbor or a friend to watch them for far less than an official daycare would cost. She can go to her church, and ask if there is anyone in the congregation who can help. And lest you assume that I don’t understand how hard it is to be a stay-at-home mother, I am one. I raise two children while my husband supports us on a military salary. And I have helped more than one military mother get her family on its feet by watching her children at a fraction of the going rate for childcare. Which, by the way, is another way to bring in an income without paying for childcare. I guarantee you she knows someone who would love to pay half price for childcare.

  20. Meggan Says:

    I have a sister who is on social security for her permanent disability, so I understand she can’t work because she can’t stand, can’t lift and cannot walk long distances. This sister just lost her food stamps as they are cutting down on all “expenses” in this state. Fine. She has two dogs, three cats and a partridge in a pear tree. Just kidding about the bird. Just the first two sets of animals. She can’t afford to feed herself due to the animals’ food and vet budget eating up the rest of her leftover money after bills. She insists on having phone service with long distance as well as internet. She needs neither. I did get her a pay as you go cell phone for her birthday and she hasn’t bothered putting any minutes on it with her birthday money. She will not give up the animals and she is not going to be able to make her payment for the phone/internet this month. I told her to get dial-up, as she doesn’t need cable internet. She said she couldn’t, it was a “package” deal. I said you just get local phone service and use that for internet. Couldn’t do that either. I said if you want to have extra money every month, sounds to me like you need to unload those animals you can’t take care of. She says I can’t, I have to have my pets. Ok, I told her, since you won’t economize and you won’t sacrifice some things, I guess you’re going to starve and have no phone or internet. I told her I give up trying to help you, as you won’t take my advice and there’s always an excuse. I told her the only way she was going to be hearing from me is by mail until she can get her finances straight and figure out that I’m not wasting my time with her mentality anymore.

  21. D. DDG Says:

    I too have a brother that has been literally supported by the rest of us for over 20 years, since he hasn’t worked for that long. I decided this is the last 12 month of my life that I will support him and have told him so. I’m 7 years older than him and looking towards my own “senior years” and am paring my own lifestyle down. There is no way this person would ever sit down for a budgeting or talk about his finances. He feels he has a “right” to all the things the rest of us have been slaving away for over 30 years for. It is a no- win situation all the way around. The best quote I’ve ever heard regarding this is: ” Free yourself from the need to solve others problems and you will be free of a dreadful burden and a lot of stress.”

  22. Anonymous Says:

    I can totally relate to this story! My husband is the eldest of 5 children, and has taken care of his Mom and the rest of the family since he was 15. Siblings are in a constant state of crisis … with a new story each time something happens.

    When I came into my husband’s life, we knew things had to change, as there was no way we could start a family if he continually was rescuing his siblings based on their own poor choices. The process was totally painful — as we weaned them off of our money, they became totally resentful. That was the first clue that things were really off balance — instead of saying “thanks for the tens of thousands of dollars throughout the years,” they stopped talking to us. But with time, we reconnected, and things are healthier now.

    I will say that in any situation like this, there are two enablers — the person giving has as much blame as the one asking. It can be intoxicating to be the one who rescues and holds the purse strings.

    But in the long run, it never helps to bail someone out more than once. To use a tired metaphor, teach em to fish.

    Thanks for the great post!

  23. Shelley Says:

    The poor think differently about money. Their poverty mentality is often passed down generationally. Often, there’s the thought that because my parents were poor, I’ll remain poor also. Poor folks often live from crisis to crisis, and usually have not been taught or simply don’t make the connection between concepts of budgeting (there’s so little money it seems like a useless endeavor), or delaying their gratification by saving (they may not know when they’ll have the cash in hand again, so it seems reasonable to splurge when doing without is the norm). Not only does an education process have to take place so they can understand the relevance of concepts that other income earners take for granted, but there also must be a retraining in the self talk they feed themselves about money. One to one relationships with caring, patient, higher income people mentoring them will change their thinking and behavior about money. Studying what God’s Word says about prosperity and what is available to them through Christ will help them immensely. I know this because I’ve been raising my children as a single parent, living under poverty guidelines. Little by little, making thought and lifestyle changes have made it possible for the Lord to prosper me. Glory to God, the Word works!

  24. Deirdre Says:

    I think the amazing thing in this story is how you and your husband sat down with them and helped them to see what was coming in and what was going out and helped them come up with a budget that worked for them.

    Sometimes that is really what people need — someone who is willing to take the time to explain something. I know there are issues in my life that would really benefit from this (decluttering and cleaning is where I need help).

    I do agree with the poster who questioned your opinions on being a stay-at-home parent. Putting a child in daycare and getting a traditional job is not always the best solution, financially or for the child, and there are a variety of possibilities one could consider instead (getting a job from home, parents working at different times, taking in children, etc.).

  25. Momma Says:

    I guess I should address the two comments regarding the requirement that my sister in law get a job and contribute to the family’s finances in order for us to help them out. I, in no way, implied that being a stay at home mom wasn’t contributing. In their circumstance, AFTER doing their expenses and budget, it was necessary for her to get a job in order for them to get back on their feet financially. Period. It had nothing to do with her contribution or lack thereof to the family unit.. only the bank balance.

    Yes, we ran the numbers both ways. Yes, it made more sense for her to get a job. At the risk of making the post too long, I cut out the bit where I reminded my sister in law and brother that they have me, my mother and stepfather, my husband, my teenaged daughters, my sister in law’s sister and father, all here and ready and willing to help pick up the slack if she needed help with childcare.

    I’m sorry that it came across as though I made a demand on their life and condemned her for being a stay at home mom. That’s not quite how it went.

  26. Cynthia Says:

    That was a great story and you did the perfect thing to help them. One thing she could do is work from home, like doing childcare herself. By saving commuting and her own childcare she would/could make enough money to really help make up the difference. My daughter-in-law did that for several years and paid most of their bills this way.
    Meggan, you are not understanding how disability is however. Your sister has her pets as her “companions” her family and when you are home all the time your tv and internet is the only entertainment you get and the only way you can stay in touch with the outside world. I am on social security disability too and the money is verrrry meager. With only 650 a month and help with food stamps, food pantrys, federal housing assistance, I barely survive. She may be able to get a discount phone as I have here. In Kc,mo they call it lifeline. It is a discount rate for people on social security and they go by your income. She can also qualify for state or county assistance with house cleaning and personal care.
    You have to understand, when you become disabled you lose EVERYTHING! You watch as you are waiting (sometimes years) to qualify for disabilty, and you sell or lose all your assets, all your lifes dreams and aspirations, all your hobbys even. You either can’t do them or can’t afford them. People don’t call and visit much when you are disabled. They kind of forget about you. She needs the internet so she can keep in touch with people. Spend a couple of hours researching and putting yourself in her shoes and you will understand better.