Personal finance would be easy if it were only about the numbers. But it’s not. Money management not only requires that we master our own whims and emotions, but that we navigate the sometimes rocky waters of our personal relationships. Rachel wrote looking for help with a stormy situation. What happens when you gain control of your finances but the people around you continue to struggle? Here’s her story:

I’m having issues because I’m doing well financially and my family is not. Here is some background information: I am twenty years old and about to move out and live on my own for the first time. I live in California, but am moving to Maryland in three weeks. I am working three jobs to save money for the move, the third (and most lucrative) of which I acquired completely to put directly into my ING Direct savings account. (See? I do pay attention!) I also:

  • Have about $1500 saved, and by the end of the next three weeks it will be about $3000.
  • Filed my taxes on time.
  • Pay my credit card off every month.
  • Am planning to open a Roth IRA as soon as I have a little more for an emergency fund.

My mom, however, is drowning. My parents divorced a few years ago and were doing well financially when we sold our house. But somewhere along the way my dad developed a gambling habit and squandered all of his share of the money, and put himself into debt with the IRS. They started taking everything but what he needed for rent and basic necessities. They even took the money for child support because at that point the divorce was not finalized and they saw his child support as voluntary.

That’s when my mom’s debt started accumulating, and it’s just been piling up ever since. She already owes me about $2000 from the past year or so, and every month she asks me to borrow some money for rent, but usually she gets a check from my dad right in the nick of time. I can’t afford to lend her the money because it would put me behind in my goals, but at the same time she needs to support herself and my fourteen year old sister, and what am I supposed to do, let them just end up on the street?

She has exhausted every available resource she could possibly borrow money from, and is looking into declaring bankruptcy because her business is not generating enough income to make up for the small amount of child support she receives, and all of her debt. My dad gets paid slowly because he’s working contractually for different companies as a software consultant, and as he’s not on the regular payroll it can take weeks for the checks to come.

I don’t know how to continue to grow as a financially stable person while knowing this is going on. I don’t know how to keep myself from giving in to her need to borrow money — or should I? Which is more important, making sure my family has a home now or looking out for my retirement in 50 years? I’m just not experienced enough in the world to know how to handle this.

Some readers will say, “Give up and move on.” Others will say, “Family comes first.” But to me (and, apparently, to Rachel), it’s not that easy. There’s a balance to be found. But how? Where is that balance? It’s a difficult question. As a reference point, I consulted my library of 141 personal finance books. Do you know how many discussed this issue? One.

On page 81 of Dave Ramsey’s The Money Answer Book, he explores the question, “My parents are financially irresponsible. How can I help them? How can I forgive them for teaching me their bad habits?” His answer?

Most parents do not want their children’s advice. It’s just a fact of life. They do not want correction from their own children, especially if it’s unsolicited. The best thing you can do to help your parents is give them your personal testimony, give them a resource like this book to start them thinking, and just keep the option open so that they can come to you if they want to.

What do you think? Have you faced a similar situation before? How did you handle it? What would do if your parents did have chronic money problems? Should Rachel move out and move on? Or is her obligation to her family?

Mini-rant: Did you see that stat? One out of 141 personal finance books in my office address this subject. That’s the problem with mainstream personal finance education. It focuses on raw numbers to the exclusion of all else. And most of our financial problems come from that “all else”.

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