When and how to help

  • January 11, 2016

Originally published in the News Star and the Shreveport Times on Sunday, January 10, 2016.

Question: I have the unusual task of trying to teach my middle aged brother about basic financial management. He is broke and in debt and is now living with our mother. After going through a divorce and a rebound girlfriend, he now has credit card debt, no car, no assets and no job. I want to help him, but don’t want to throw cash at him. I was taught by my father to save, but apparently my brother didn’t get it. Any suggestions on where to start?

Answer: Ever since Cain and Abel, mystified parents have wept many a tear over the enigma of one brother turning out so differently from another.

lifesaversSo first, it will help to come to terms with two truths: you may never figure out why you and your brother turned out so differently. And second, your brother may never change.

Since you did not say anything about it, I am going to assume your brother is not physically or emotionally ill. If he is, that must be addressed (at least to some degree) first.

So here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as you deal with this difficult family situation:

You cannot fix your brother. Only he can do that.

Based on your description, your brother is displaying a lifelong pattern of serial irresponsibility. And let me be blunt – when a middle aged man has not seemed to escape the gravitational pull of serial irresponsibility, it is unlikely that he ever will. Not impossible. Just unlikely.

So, yes, you may be able to help him, but only if he wants help. Real help. The kind of help that will assist him in the act of helping himself. Not the kind that does it for him – that’s no real help at all. That’s just enabling.

Your brother needs to learn personal responsibility, not just financial management. This is not about knowing the right things, but doing the right things. The first thing he needs is a job. He may not be able to find a job he loves or even likes for now, but he needs to be off Mom’s couch working somewhere.

Your brother may surround himself with people who keep rescuing him. Don’t be another one of those people. Don’t let Mom talk you into being one, and certainly don’t let your brother talk you into being one. By definition, tough love is tough. Be tough.

You can love your brother, even if he never changes. Love means seeking the other person’s highest good – even if it means allowing them to learn some painful, experiential life lessons. Sometimes love takes a hard line, declining to enable, while keeping the door open for what I’ll call “healthy-helping.” You might think of healthy-helping as the kind of helping that leads one step closer to an embrace of personal responsibility.

Love your brother – but remember Mom, too. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to love your mother. But…love your mother. Love her enough to protect her from your brother’s personal irresponsibility, which could take her down financially, emotionally and otherwise.

The first rule of lifeguarding is “don’t drown with a swimmer in trouble.” Any lifeguard knows he might approach a seemingly docile drowning victim and, upon arrival, that same victim becomes violently aggressive, grasping on to the lifeguard, in an effort to save himself. The result is a double drowning.

This is a hard situation. And the odds of success are low. I can tell that you love your brother and you want to help. Wonderful. Help him with all your heart…to the degree he wants help, not further enablement.

Just be careful. A drowned lifeguard does no one any good.

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Byron R. Moore, CFP® is Managing Director / Planning Group of Argent Advisors, Inc. Email him at bmoore@argentadvisors.com. Write to him at 500 East Reynolds Drive, Ruston, LA 71270 or call him at (318) 251-5858. The opinions of any single advisor do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Argent Advisors, Inc.  No forecasts can be guaranteed.  Argent Advisors, Inc. does not offer tax, insurance or legal advice.  The information contained in this column should not be construed as a substitute for personalized investment, tax, insurance or legal advice.