What happens when you take control of your finances, but the other people in your life continue to struggle? I’ve heard this question from two people lately. During the Q&A of my talk at the library last Saturday, one audience member asked:

You mentioned during your presentation that you had two friends give you books [when you were having financial trouble]. Is that how you recommend approaching the discussion to friends and families who need that kind of advice?

Coincidentally, Jenni wrote this week with a similar dilemma:

I’m so excited about getting control over my money, and when I talk to my family and friends, they are also very happy for me. But, as I talked to my mother and my boyfriend, I’ve suggested changes I’ve read about that they each can make. The result is they get angry, defensive, or hurt. 

I’m not criticizing what they’ve done so far — just offering suggestions for what they can do now and in the future. But it touches on a sore spot. Should I just leave them alone, and only talk about my own finances? Do you have suggestions for how to talk with your loved ones about money?

Making positive changes to your financial life gives you a sense of power and control. When you’re in debt, when you spend compulsively, it feels like there’s nothing you can do stop. But as you gradually change your attitudes and behaviors, you eventually reach a point where you realize that you are in control. That moment is liberating. Like any new believer, you want to share what you’ve learned. That’s a good thing. But you need to be careful.

Sometimes when you try to share your new-found wisdom with others, they’re not as excited as you might think. Each person is in a different place. Though you may have friends and family members who could profit from what you’ve learned, if they’re not ready to listen, you run the risk of doing more harm than good when you offer advice.

Here are three subtle ways you can help those who are still struggling:

  • Lead by example. Suggest cutting back on the family gift exchange this year. When you go out to dinner with your partner, choose cheaper alternatives. Start walking to the grocery store instead of driving. Bring home books and CDs and DVDs from the library. Don’t make a big deal out of things — just do them. Rather than goad your friends and family into saving, be an example of what can happen through smart money choices.
  • Be willing to answer questions. When I was struggling with debt and poor choices, I could see that certain people in my life (such as my wife) had their finances under control. Sometimes I would ask questions. I asked my cousin about mutual funds, and he explained them to me. For a time, I even put money into them. (Then I pulled it out to buy a computer.) Be available as a resource.
  • Use the soft sell. When my friend Michael listened to my complaints about money in 2003, he didn’t make a big deal out of it. He told me his financial story, and then mentioned a book he liked called Your Money or Your Life. He didn’t lecture. He didn’t try to convert me. He simply spent a few minutes explaining how he’d solved his problems, and then he let it go. A few days later, a copy of Your Money or Your Life appeared in my mailbox, and I knew it was from him. That was enough.

From personal experience, I believe that books can be a great, gentle tool to introduce the ideas of financial responsibility. Last year, I created a list of personal-finance books that make great gifts. If you can find a way to incorporate one of these (or a personal-finance magazine) naturally into your giving, it may have greater impact than simply bringing up subjects in conversation. But be careful! If done incorrectly, this can be taken as a preachy gift. Nobody likes a preachy gift.

I’m curious how other Get Rich Slowly readers have handled this kind of situation. How do you encourage your family and friends to make smart choices with money without making them defensive or angry? What mistakes have you made in the past? What techniques have you found that work? Does a person have to hit rock bottom before they’re ready to listen?

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