I Kept My Brother's Family Afloat - and Now I Regret It

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BNY82D American dollar american; dollar; banknote; cash; currency; dollarbill; money; 40-44; years; buying; caucasian; close; up
Alamy

By Danielle Woods, as told to Marianne Hayes

All names have been changed in this "My Secret Money Life" essay from LearnVest.com.

My older brother and I have never been particularly close. We got along well enough as children, but our relationship didn't grow into the strong, tight-knit kind I've seen other siblings share. Let's just say we're very different people: He's an introvert, while I'm a social butterfly. And the truth is that if we weren't family, we probably wouldn't run in the same circles.

But when I saw my brother start to struggle financially, I couldn't help but feel the natural tug to step in. He's family, after all, and I had enough room in my budget to spare a little. So, really, it was a no-brainer when I made the decision to start giving him money -- but it had to be secret, so he'd never realize it was me writing the checks.

A Pattern of Secret Giving Begins

My husband Mike and I are no strangers to charitable giving. I'm a corporate executive, and he's thriving as a business consultant, so we can give to various philanthropies and charities. But no matter who the recipient of our charitable giving is, we've always followed a single guiding mantra: We're not looking to be heroes. My husband and I know that we've been blessed and want to share it with others-and giving anonymously allows us to do just that. What's the point of seeking recognition?

We also firmly believe that charity should start at home. So shame on me if I can write a check to a charity, but won't do anything to help a struggling family member.

My brother, Peter, and his wife Samantha had always struggled financially. In fact, my parents had been throwing money Peter's way for years -- for down payments on homes, to pay various bills and to buy school supplies for their kids.

Facilitated Through the Church

But when I noticed him and Samantha facing particularly difficult money decisions, like whether or not to buy new clothes for their three children, I knew it was time for me to act.

I handed over my credit card and paid half of the outstanding balance -- a grand total of just under $10,000.

That said, I didn't feel comfortable just handing Peter a check for fear of insulting him or making him feel self-conscious about his economic situation. So I got the idea to use our church as a way to facilitate the secret giving, and the fact that Peter also went to our congregation made the decision even easier. We simply wrote a check and asked the church to create a benevolence fund for Peter and Samantha. It was a win-win situation -- and one that, to this day, my brother doesn't know about.

We covertly wrote checks this way to Peter and Samantha on two occasions in the early 2000s, which added up to about $2,500. And, for a while, it made a difference. I don't know exactly how they used the money, but Peter once told me how he felt cared-for by our church -- that his community was looking out for him.

I was happy to hear that, and couldn't help but feel encouraged that maybe they were using the money wisely and learning good habits that would help them find their financial footing. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong.

The $10,000 Gift That Changed Everything

In the decade that followed our secret giving, Peter and his family managed to stay afloat -- with more not-so-covert help from me and my parents.

My husband and I didn't mind occasionally footing the bill for random expenses. I picked up the check at restaurants. I covered the costs of some of their vacations. Years earlier, I'd even paid for their honeymoon -- so this was nothing new.

To be fair, my brother never asked for this help. But with so many of his sentences beginning with, "We wish we could, but ... ," I felt inclined to step in when I could. Unfortunately, the opportunity to give anonymously didn't present itself again -- from here on out, our efforts to help were completely transparent.

Was Peter grateful? I'm not sure. It wasn't something we talked about -- I just did it.

Eventually, in 2011, Peter and his family moved to a different part of the country, and communication became less frequent-until disaster struck. While waiting for Peter's health insurance through a new job to kick in, Samantha suffered a stroke. Thankfully, she recovered, but it left them worse off financially than they'd ever been.

Faraway and Facing Big Medical Bills

Between the hospital bill, anesthesiologists, surgeons and more, Samantha's stroke cost them upwards of $40,000. Whenever we spoke on the phone, which wasn't often, the picture Peter painted was bleak. He never outright asked for our help -- but I knew he really needed it.

Mike and I agreed we couldn't just sit back and watch, so we sat down and seriously discussed what we could do. Because we've always had such a communicative relationship -- and we both agree that family comes first -- the conversation was easier to have than you might expect. Knowing we'd do the same if it were his family, Mike was fully on board.

The first thing we did was ask Samantha for access to her medical bills, so I could negotiate them down on her behalf. After sorting through the paperwork, I flew down to see Peter and share with him the plan that Mike and I had agreed to: We'd pay half of their largest bill, with the understanding that any ancillary medical expenses would remain their responsibility.

They agreed -- and promised to set up pay schedules for the outstanding bills -- although Peter seemed pretty solemn throughout the conversation. In fact, he barely made eye contact with me. I wasn't sure if he was thankful, ashamed or a mix of both.

As our visit came to a close, Samantha and I went to the hospital together to settle the $40,000 bill, which I had negotiated down 50 percent. I handed over my credit card and paid half of the outstanding balance -- just under $10,000. This was met with tears and gratitude from Samantha -- which is why I was surprised when our relationship began to cool shortly after.

Why I Regret Our Decision to Give

Peter and Samantha rarely reach out to Mike and me anymore. The phone calls have dwindled, and the emails are scarce. Do they feel guilty for the money we sacrificed for them? Embarrassed? Resentful of our more fortunate position? I have no idea.

What I do know is that they ended up filing for bankruptcy about a year after I paid their hospital bill -- although Peter never actually shared this with me. It was my parents who let it slip.

Learning about the bankruptcy infuriated me: Had I known that there would be no real commitment to financial stability on their part -- even after they'd agreed to cover the rest of the medical bills -- I never would have given them the money.

Perhaps the worst part is hearing about how they are currently choosing to spend whatever money they have. My parents tell me Peter just dropped $700 on a new puppy. My 14-year-old niece is also getting a new iPhone 6. I don't even have an iPhone 6!

Indulging in Impulse Purchases

The hard truth is that my brother doesn't have a high-paying salary, but they do not deprive their children of anything. The latest jeans, electronics, shoes ... When it comes to their kids, they never say no. Such careless spending is hard to swallow for me in light of their mounting financial responsibilities. In my opinion -- and given my role in the situation, I feel entitled to an opinion -- their financial obligations should take priority over impractical impulse buying.

My parents have also stopped extending money to Peter. My father's new stance is that he'll lend them cash if Peter provides a budget of how they'll spend it. Of course, no budget has ever materialized.

Over the years, my parents have given him over $70,000, which includes all the times he's lived with them as an adult. As for my part, I've given my brother something in the neighborhood of $15,000 over the years.

But I don't regret it because, at the time, I felt it was the right thing to do. I never had any illusions of being paid back -- all the money was given as gifts. I'm more upset with the way my brother chose to use those gifts.

Clarify Expectations

I've been thinking a lot about what I've learned from this process and I think it's this: If you're considering loaning money to friends or family, make sure you fully understand your expectations throughout the entire process, and make a plan together for how the money is to be used -- before you give.

I've also learned that charitable giving is very different from familial giving. When giving to a charity, the donor is free of expectation -- they just trust that the money will be distributed wisely. But when it comes to family, you can't always designate how the money will be used.

And another thing I know for sure? Next time I go out to eat with my brother, I will not be reaching for the check.


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37 Comments

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jmg62

That's the thing right there - if one is to give money to a family member or close friend have no expectations it will be necessarily spent on what is the most emergent thing they've asked or not asked for it for in the first place. If they have the recurring debt over and over - same place - ask why. But again, if you want to help with money be prepared to see it used elsewhere. If they get in trouble and you mention you've helped with that debt several times and they still haven't dealt with it - for whatever reason - offer to make out a check for something else directly. I had a friend who complained about a friend borrowing money off him every other week - but paying him back the following week. I thought it was extreme to have to keep borrowing. My friend told me it was so he could go out to dinner with his friends. I asked for how much and he said $20. My friend is well off and retired at 50 owning house and car with $2 million+. Since his friend was paying him back every other week the full amount - I wondered what the big deal was. He said his friend shouldn't be going out to dinner if he can't afford it. OK, so ask him to get a credit card and use it for his dinners then. Don't get mad at him. Or just say no. But, it's taking nothing from your table. It was just that my friend had a problem with how it was being spent by his friend. I'd thought his friend was borrowing $1000.00 or something and not paying him back - which wasn't the case. It's difficult for some to borrow money since more than ever people are judged by supporting themselves - and not everyone fits into the round or square holes in today's world. Jobs that one could go apply for with a application now need degrees and information that shows experience and it's just not always there. How to interview - what to say - what not to say - do this - don't do that. It's a lot different out there than it used to be. I can't imagine anyone wanting to borrow off another - but life happens

August 17 2014 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SacWriterEditor

My help to family was clearly a gift with no expectation of repayment, because I knew the money would never be there to repay it. But the real shock was that when I was ill and needed hands-on help, I was told "you can get help from the government, you're not my responsibility." (Ummm, no, you have to be receiving Social Security Disability in order to qualify for the government caregiver program. It's not as simple as "just have your doctor sign the form.")

But a week after the youngest of her kids got the check for his college fund, suddenly I heard from the older kids (who'd been ignoring me for years) ... clearly trying to get in my good graces so I'd set up college funds for their kids. Ummm, no. My money goes to a medical research charity, not to family members who only remember I exist when they want something.

August 15 2014 at 11:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
junieMT

Wasn't the first mistake paying for the honeymoon and not being paid back for it? Was that their 'wedding gift'? Awful big one if so.
The brother and his wife were granted a free luxury and from there money just kept presenting itself as they continued buying more luxuries for the kids. They learned that they could just skate by and get away with their bad spending habits because between the parents and the church fund, money just kept showing up. Many people spend this way.

The brother and now his kids would have been better off to sit down and the author and her hubby help teach some fiscal responsibility because thousands of dollars later and they are in the same boat.

It's a tough lesson to learn. A lot like enabling an addict, only there were never any promises from the brother that he would change. No breakdowns over the years or pleading this was the last time he needed a hand-out?

Not hearing from the brother? He'd have to face facts and provide an explanation, which would be too HARD for him. Did he ever have to provide an explanation for 'receiving' the money? No. He skated and skaters don't stop to explain or express gratitude or offer what they can do in return. They keep on skating.

August 15 2014 at 6:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yeand

When it comes to family "loans" are gifts. No matter what is said or promised. Or at least that is my experience. The funny thing that happened to me and my wife is that when a family member that we had helped received a large cash payment, over 500k, they never once gave a thought to even paying us back, or even considering what we might need. It wasn't more than a year and a half later and the "fortune" was gone and we were again treated to the desprate news of the latest light bill being due or 2 payments behind on the car note. I think it is a blessing that even approching 60 years old I dont really have a dime to my name because I am probally the worlds worst money manager. I just hope my kids won't be too angry with me when they have to kick in to bury me.

August 13 2014 at 9:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rebecca

"In my opinion -- and given my role in the situation, I feel entitled to an opinion -- their financial obligations should take priority over impractical impulse buying." so says the author. Further, "I'm upset the way he used the gift." and "But when it comes to family, you can't always designate how the money will be used.."

Really? Can we say entitlement and control issues much? While all this may be true, the author would like to paint a picture that their "gifting" was unconditional and generous. It was not. It had expectations attached as well as judgments when things didn't go the way they wanted it to go. Further, and most importantly, it was never requested. Under this scenario, you only have yourself to blame for the results, particularly with the brother's poor history.

Moral of the story. If you're going to give, give without expectation. Otherwise, expect disappointment. And please don't label your gifting to be something other than what it was. It was a gift with strings attached and it's no wonder that the brother no longer communicates with them, in my view to the benefit of them all. The relationship is clearly not a healthy one for any of the parties.

August 13 2014 at 7:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
phpoling

Never ever help your silbings out with your own credit cards or cash period. They won't pay you back ever! Just don't help at all. That's their problems not yours.

August 13 2014 at 12:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to phpoling's comment
kng20

I aggree with you phpoling. If you are going to help family the best thing is to give as a gift without strings attached. You are better off because the chances are you will be disapointed when you are not paid back or what conditions you made with them.

August 13 2014 at 5:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sugarcreekchile

Her mistake was in expecting her brother to change his ways. Between her and her parents, he had no reason to stop living beyond his means. (Nowhere in the story does it say he was ever out of work). They enabled him to be fiscally irresponsible. It's not like she was paying for necessities like an overdue electric bill to prevent service from being cut off but for him and his family to take vacations (something that even many fiscally responsible families can't afford).

When did she ever expect her brother to stand on his own two feet? She thinks it's time to step in when he has to decide whether or not to buy his kids new clothes. Sure, don't let the guy decide what is more important, new clothes for the kids or whatever else it was he wanted to spend money on? Instead of taking the kids shopping and letting them each get a couple of new outfits, she gives him cash and expects him to use it how she intended.

Helping to negotiate a hospital bill down is one thing, picking up half the tab just sends her brother the message that "I know you're needy, aren't you so lucky that I'm so successful?" and she wonders why the relationship cooled. Who wants to keep being reminded their family considers them a loser? One thing to note is that he never asked for help. She and her parents wanted to be saviors and are upset that her brother didn't walk up the aisle and confess his sins.

August 12 2014 at 11:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Luis J. Castillo

I am in need of charity.

August 12 2014 at 11:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jrexmarda

Accept charity from your family and they'll be telling you how to live your life.
Why didn't she just let her brother figure it out for himself and gain a little dignity for himself. No she had to throw money at him then snipe that he's not living up to her standards. Blah. I never could stand receiving charity for that reason. Brother should never cash any of her checks, that will definitely end the charity, and possibly the do-gooder policing. Your brother was too kind to tell you to let him alone so he put a lot of space between you and him, but you can't stop can you, you're still nebbing into his life. Guess you don't have enough of your own problems. That will probably change, then you'll complain that he doesn't call or come to see you. And after all you did for him....yech.

August 12 2014 at 11:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cslyxoxo

So she wanted to give to her brother and he wanted to give to his children.
However, she clearly wanted a pat on the back. So much so when she didn't get it from her brother and his wife, she wrote an article in the hopes she would get it from us, the readers. All I heard was... in a nut shell, "I have a great marriage, my husband and I are perfect. I have friends. My pathetic brother doesn't have friends. My brother is needy where as I am NOT. I'm jealous of the help my parents have given to him. My parents and I gossip about what a taker he is whenever we get together. I helped him and he didn't want to be my friend afterwards. Boo hoo. I helped him and I tried to teach he and his wife how to take care of money. I tried to control them and it didn't work. When they didn't listen to me it made me regret all the charity I gave to that loser."
I'm pretty sure her brother can see right through her and that's why he has distanced himself from her.

August 12 2014 at 9:40 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply