Some folks are wise and some are otherwise. -Tobias Smollett
Question #58284 posted on 07/08/2010 3:01 a.m.
Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

So I know the right answer to this question, but I still have to ask it. I just need some sense knocked into me.

When I left for college, my mom gave me a credit card and said to charge anything I wanted and she would pay for it. I was pretty grateful and was careful with it. For the first few years, I only put my flight home tickets on the card. Then towards the end of my fourth year, my mom pressured me into charging some very expensive items on the card, racking up a couple of thousand dollars of debt. She is very persuasive and kept reassuring me she would pay for it. The items were all for me but are things I would NOT have charged had I known what would happen (we are talking expensive haircuts, expensive clothes and professional teeth bleaching. Stuff I REALLY didn't need/couldn't afford/didn't even want.)

Basically, shortly after I racked up the debt, my mom lost her job. Then I graduated and got a job. Now I'm torn on what to do. I'm frustrated at the thought of having to pay for all that debt because I still can't really afford it (since I just graduated) and because its for stuff that I never wanted in the first place! I got it just because she wanted me so badly to have it and I figured, it's her money, let her spend it how she wants. At the same time, she doesn't has a job and is tens of thousands of dollars in debt because she also set up similiar siutations with my siblings. She is one of the worst money managers I know, even though what she spends, she does out of love.

What should I do?! I'm grateful that she loves me, but I'm so frustrated with the situation and I need financial guidance!

- Trying to stay out of debt

A: Dear good for you,

Here's a story that I feel somewhat relates to your situation. Read on if you want, or skip to the paragraph starting with "Now." Years ago I had a great aunt die who I'd never met. All the kids in my family got $1500, which I was pretty stoked about, since I was going to college in the fall and could certainly use $1500 to put towards tuition. However, my oldest sister wanted to buy a car, and another sister was taking a trip to Europe, so us younger kids' money was given to them, with the promise of being repaid.

I needed my money the soonest, so I arranged for my oldest sister to send her car payments to me instead of my folks until I had my $1500 back. So every month my freshman year I got a nice $234 check until I'd been repaid. Fast forward five years. I'm opening my birthday box from home and inside the card is a check for $1600. What in the world was going on? I called my mom to see what was up, and she told me $100 was to put toward the sewing machine I'd asked for, and the rest was the inheritance I never got.

I said I was pretty sure I'd been repaid ages ago. My poor saintly mother said she'd lost track of who had gotten what, felt incredibly guilty, and had scrimped and saved to give me this $1500. I felt like I couldn't accept it, but she insisted that I should, even after she heard I'd already been repaid. I never got braces like my siblings, she and my dad hadn't ever gotten my wisdom teeth removed like they'd meant to, etc. etc. So I accepted it and put it to good use, despite feeling a little guilty for getting a double inheritance.

Now, your mom sounds a lot like mine in that she gave you the money out of the goodness of her heart and had to pressure you into taking it. You shouldn't feel guilty for spending the money or feel an obligation to repay any or all of it, because it was a gift, but I'd like you to consider why she gave you the money in the first place. You may have heard of the five love languages, or the theory that different people give and receive love in different ways. Giving gifts is how your mom shows her love, and she may feel like now that she can't give you things you won't love her. It sounds silly when put that way, but it may be true on some level. Let her know that you still love her, but that receiving gifts from her isn't necessary.

What would I would do in your situation? I'd try to pay her back, simply because it would break my heart to see my mom destitute. Paying back all the money may be more than you can do, so decide how much to give back. I'd shoot for half, and I'd do it in monthly installments, like I was paying off a student loan. Decide how much is a reasonable amount to set aside each month without putting too much strain on your own finances. It could be $5 or $500. It's up to you.

However, you've said that your mom is bad with money, so there's a chance she won't handle the money you give her all that well. If that's the case I'd work through another person or go through the bank so she never sees the money directly.

Another option is to not give her any money, because you'd rather not, she won't accept it, or for whatever reason. You can still help her in other ways. Send her to counseling for money management. Sit down with her and decide on ways to save money. I don't know how she lives, so I can't provide absolute answers, but saving money in general will give her money to put toward paying off her debts. She may need to downsize a few things, like her home or car. Encourage her to be responsible. Decide with her how many credit cards it's advisable for her to have and use. Make sure someone checks up on her. Are all your siblings as unwilling to accept money as you are? If not, encourage them to be more self-reliant so they don't put added strain on your mom.

Make sure she knows she's loved and that you forgive her. And no matter what, never accept money from anyone if it makes you uneasy. Decline and stand firm.

-the snake whisperer