Helping someone out financially can be hard. Not just because your own budget may be tight, but because money is such an emotionally charged subject. Bring money into any relationship and you inevitably threaten the existing dynamic, even when you have the most benevolent intentions. It can change how the two of you relate forever, and even drive a big enough wedge that it ends the friendship.
Once upon a time, simply avoiding the topic — like some do with politics or religion — might have been the obvious path to take. But if someone close to you has lost their income due to COVID-19 or other factors, sticking your head in the sand when a person you care about is worried about making rent isn’t exactly comfortable either. Especially now that it’s been about a month since the end of the $600 unemployment boost that tens of millions of people relied on, you may be thinking of a friend struggling to make ends meet — or a family member, a roommate, a close coworker — and wondering if it would be appropriate for you to offer some help. “There's an opportunity for us, especially during the time of COVID, to think about the people in our lives,” says Aditi Shekar, founder of personal finance app Zeta and an expert in navigating money issues in personal relationships.
She points out that one fairly seamless way people have been helping those they know is continuing to pay for services they normally received before COVID-19, even if they’ve since paused them. “If you're privileged enough to have access to a dog walker or a nanny or some sort of help around the house, all of those folks could be very, very relevant folks for you to give to — in addition to some of your friends who might be in the service industry and whose incomes may be suffering right now,” says Shekar.
But what about in other cases, especially if it’s a relationship where money hasn’t really been discussed before? Is it presumptuous to suggest helping your friend financially, even if you know for a fact that they’re going through a hard time? “Money carries a lot of guilt, shame, resentment, and anxiety with it,” says Shekar. “Even bringing it up with your friends can feel uncomfortable. It can result in a really tough conversation.”
According to Shekar, there are several things to figure out about before you bring it up. “Do you expect the money back?” she says. “Where are you [financially]? Do you see this as your way of contributing to your friend or family's livelihood? I think that's a really important distinction, because what you do next really depends on whether or not you expect the money back.”
To be clear, Shekar has no judgment for wanting to be repaid. But it requires being honest with yourself and what you would be okay with — don’t just offer a certain amount because that’s what your heart wants to be able to give. “If you'd like to lend a friend or family member $1,000, make sure that's $1,000 that you can actually afford to forgo,” says Shekar. “One of the most difficult things with lending friends and family money is that if you don't get the money back and you rely on it, that can be a really difficult thing for you and for the folks around you.”
You should also assess how you’re really going to feel about not getting back the money before you offer it as a gift. Is there a real possibility that you might be judgmental or controlling about how the financial assistance is used, especially if you offer it as a gift and not a loan? “You can end up getting resentment later — because you helped this person with that bill, and now they’re SoulCycling on the weekends,” says Shekar. “You need to come to terms with the idea that when you give somebody money, they don't owe you. You don’t get to dictate their lifestyles.”
It can be hard not to unconsciously fall into this trap, even if you don’t want to be judgmental or resentful. A 2017 psychology paper published by researchers Juliana Schroeder, Adam Waytz, and Nicholas Epley found that we often resist giving straight cash assistance, choosing to donate instead to food banks or other specific organizations, because we think we’re wiser about spending that money than the recipients would be. No one likes being condescended to, so it may be useful to practice thinking of your help not as charity. Consider it a little redistribution, a shifting around of funds to where they’re more valuable right now. “You need to come to that conversation in a very empathetic manner,” says Shekar. “I've definitely seen folks try to contribute and be a little cocky about it. ‘Oh look at me, I'm doing you a favor.’ That's a really hard thing for anybody who's receiving the money to process.”
Another thing to consider when giving loved ones financial support is examining how much acknowledgement you’re going to need. “There’s nothing wrong with needing or wanting it,” Shekar says. “I want to be very explicit about that, because sometimes it's just nice to hear somebody say, ‘Hey, thanks for doing that for me.’” But how will you feel if you don’t receive the degree of acknowledgement you wanted by helping your friend, or in the manner you prefer? Will it change your relationship? Can you rein in those expectations, helping without begrudging them for not reacting in the way you want?
Of course, if you actively don’t want any acknowledgement, there are also subtle ways to contribute financially without “turning it into a thing,” says Shekar. “If you're rooming with someone, you could choose to just buy more of the groceries or the toilet paper without necessarily saying, ‘Hey, I'm going to buy more groceries.’” If you’re responsible for making the shared bill payments, you could cover a bigger portion without explicitly bringing up a conversation around it. “There are people [I know] who have ordered things from Amazon for their friends or family who they know could benefit from X, Y, Z things. Or bought a Prime membership for a friend or family member who might just need better access to resources without putting themselves at risk by going out,” says Shekar. “We've seen phenomenal acts of kindness even on Twitter, with people Venmoing money back and forth to folks that they know are in need.”
If you’re lending money and going to expect it back, you should of course sit down and discuss it. “You could say, ‘Hey, I am in a situation where I'm able to help and support, and I would love to figure out a way to do that.’ And keep in mind that the person receiving this support, sometimes their instincts might be to say no,” Shekar says. “Because like I said, there’s that shame and [that feeling of], ‘I don’t want to expect things.’”
Shekar also advises setting generous expectations on when your friend would be able to pay you back, and budgeting for yourself accordingly. “Just assume double,” she says. As in, if they say they’ll try to pay you back in the next six months, plan for it being in a year. “Just to build yourself that flexibility. There’s so much uncertainty right now; if for any reason the person hits a hiccup or has a challenge, you’re not like — but you told me six months!”
It’s a time of exceptional hardship for many right now. And because of that, it’s also a time for what Shekar calls “exceptional acts of kindness.” But performing that kindness well may take some self-reflection first. Offering financial help can be a great show of care to the people you’re close to, as long as you decenter yourself and keep an open mind about what form that aid can take.