Too many times in families across the country, those who’ve become comparatively financially successful are unknowingly volunteered to become the “universal provider” in their family circles. I should stress the word “comparatively,” because many times those who are more successful within a family are also having their own financial problems. (But because they don’t show the same signs of struggle as other family members, they’re often viewed as “well off.”) The universal provider constantly gets hit up; for examples, with requests for short-term loans that are somehow never repaid.
“I’m a little short on rent this month, can I borrow $500 ’til I get my tax return?” (Which never comes.) “I was laid off from work again, can I borrow $2,000 ’til I can get back on my feet again?” “I was evicted, can I stay in your place rent free ’til I can find another place to live?”
I am not saying that people shouldn’t help others. However, it’s time to speak candidly about how we’re helping close friends and family members. If you constantly find yourself in the role of the “universal provider” issuing “loans” that are never paid back, then my argument is, you aren’t helping anybody at all. You’re enabling their dependence upon you, as opposed to helping them develop their own ability to sustain their economic well-being.
Furthermore, many universal providers suffer from their own economic hardships, and this irresponsible giving can precipitate their economic demise as they squander the precious few dollars they had stored for living expenses, bills, or even retirement and other important long-term goals. So for the universal providers out there, here are three tips for maximizing the resources in your family.
1. Use a creative promissory note. Make sure that every time someone asks for a loan, there’s a written agreement before funds exchange hands. This agreement should outline the terms of the loan: how the loan will be paid back, the timeframe of the loan, and conditions if the loan is defaulted. The agreement should be signed by both parties.
And don’t be afraid to enforce it in a court of law. I understand this can feel cold, but it’s even colder if that cousin doesn’t pay back a debt, and you find yourself in a financial bind. You don’t have to request to be paid back in monetary terms. Think about an exchange of hours applied to household chores, errands for your business, or even community service hours donated to your favorite local nonprofit.
You can also request to be paid back with documented proof of the borrower’s efforts to improve his or her condition. Proof of enrollment in the local community college, evidence of a completed website to a new business, a written letter from a GED program, copies of completed job applications—all of these are evidence of tangible tasks that this individual is actually doing work to improve their economic condition.
The bottom line is, there must be a measure of accountability. Without accountability, that boomeranged son will continue to tap your financial well until it runs dry, leaving you both penniless and dependent upon the next family member to waste their crucial financial resources.
2. Have a family empowerment meeting. One of the most powerful financial support systems within our communities (if we’re efficient in how we utilize the resources) is the family. We often take for granted how powerful the family is. What if we could meet specifically for economic empowerment discussions?
I’ve hosted many family meetings where we’re able to seek and find the necessary empowerment resources within the family. Pull all the members of the family together, including immediate, extended and close friends who are just like family. Have an independent person who knows a bit about finance host the discussion, and answer direct questions like the following:
“How many people are unemployed, and within what fields do you have an expertise or skills?” Have someone take notes of those who respond, then follow up: “Do we have anyone in those particular fields that can assist with a connection or resource to assist?”
“Do we have any children who are going to college, and can we all agree to establish a college savings fund in a 529 account in which we pool funds for them?”
“Is there anybody in jeopardy of foreclosure or being evicted? Can we set up a roommate situation to save the home, or pool funds for a mortgage in return for in-kind services rendered?”
“Do we have any current or future entrepreneurs in the family who need support, and can you outline exactly the type of support you will need from the family? Is there a possibility to turn any of these business ideas into family-run businesses by which we all can profit?”
3. Say no! If you don’t have the money, guilt isn’t a good enough reason to try to come up with the money. Learning how to say no is one of the easiest (yet most difficult things) we need to do in our community.
If you really want to help somebody, putting them in a position where they can help themselves is the most effective way of providing it. Giving them money is just putting gum in the hole of the dam—it may stop the leak temporarily, but it only leads to a larger crack and flood when the dam breaks, which hurts everybody. Tough love must be tough, but it must also be balanced by love, so don’t ever turn down a chance to help those you love. Find a way to help that will lead to true empowerment, and the whole family will be stronger in the end!