With the arrival of the GRS staff writers, the semi-regular “ask the readers” column has a new home. Look for this feature most weekends. “Ask the readers” is your chance to get (and give) advice about real-life financial dilemmas.

An anonymous GRS reader submitted a question last week that hits close to home:

I have a family member that this past year has been in serious financial trouble. He is one of the most ambitious and intelligent people I know and I would have never imagined him getting in this kind of trouble. His ambition may have been his downfall as he keeps shooting for the stars and has fallen short on some of his business ideas, which may have put him in a more vulnerable position when the economy turned south.

He is now living in debt and struggling to put food on the table for his wife and four young boys. He has had to live on credit cards for several months and they are all maxed out. I have never seen first-hand anyone in this much trouble.

My question to you is, When faced with job loss and depleted savings, how can you avoid going into credit red? At what lengths would you go to to avoid living on credit cards and missing payments on just about everything? In the situation, is credit rating even worth anything?

As I say, this situation hits close to home. Last year, I wrote about my little brother, Tony. (I say “little brother”, but he’s 36 now.) Tony’s family got caught up in the mortgage mess, buying a home in Bend, Oregon at the height of the bubble — and before their home in Portland had sold. Six months earlier and things would have been fine. But things weren’t fine. They couldn’t sell either house. The market went to hell and they lost both homes to foreclosure.

Tony now faces circumstances similar to those described in the question above. He’s learning that there’s no easy solution to a family financial crisis. His father-in-law recommends “earning your way out of the problem”. That’s a fine theory, but not always practical. Tony and his wife work hard, but they’re only able to earn so much. I think that he — and people in similar situations — should also:

  • Cut spending to the bare minimum. This can be difficult. It can be tough to shift from normal spending to frugality, especially if you’re accustomed to middle-class luxuries and a middle-class lifestyle. But when facing a financial crisis, it’s imperative to reduce spending as much as possible and as soon as possible. You must stop the bleeding before you can treat the wound, before it can heal.
  • Consider drastic measures. Sometimes it’s not enough to stop the bleeding. To stretch the metaphor, sometimes you need to amputate. If you’re in a financial crisis, you may have to take drastic action, maybe even selling a car — or your home. Most people are unwilling to consider steps like these, which only leads them further into debt. These folks need to…
  • Be brutally honest. It’s easy to say, “I’m in trouble now, but it’s only for a month or two. I’ll keep doing things as normal by using my credit cards.” If you find yourself in a financial crisis, try to take an objective look at your situation. Get outside advice from friends and family. Be willing to listen to what they tell you. Sometimes others are better able than we are to see the slack in our budgets.
  • Avoid touching retirement savings. When faced with financial peril, it’s easy to look at the large sums sitting in your retirement accounts and think they’ll provide the life preserver you need. In nearly every instance, though, you’re merely postponing the pain. Your retirement savings are there to provide for you when you’re no longer able to provide for yourself. They’re not an emergency fund.

I’m sure that other Get Rich Slowly readers have family members in similar situations. Perhaps you’re even struggling yourself (or have done so in the past). Based on your experience, what advice can you offer other folks who are struggling in this economy? What can be done to avoid sinking deeper and deeper into debt?

And as an ancillary question, what can we do to help family members in need? What should we do? I’ve told Kris that if Tony and his family find themselves in danger of living on the street, we’ll make room for them in our house. But what about before that? At what point do I loan him money? (Or gift him money?) Or should I just be here to offer advice when he needs it?

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