Advice from the Trenches: Adult Enabler

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Dear C;

Sarah answered my ad when I was looking for a roommate. She was very open about her life; she told me she’d made some bad decisions when her marriage ended, had to declare bankruptcy on credit card debts, and ended up losing everything. She was actually homeless when she came to my door. Her situation touched my heart, because I was recently divorced as well, so I told her she could move into my basement apartment. I’ve been helping Sarah get back on her feet for nearly 10 years now.  At first she couldn’t pay more than a couple hundred toward the mortgage every month, but now she’s finally just about making half of it every time, even though she’s sometimes had to borrow money and never got around to paying it back. She ran up some credit card bills again as well, but got on a debt consolidation plan two months ago. She was very optimistic about staying on time with bills and paying me back everything.

Then, two days ago, a letter arrived from the IRS. Turns out that Sarah made another bad decision – she hasn’t paid income taxes since her divorce 10 years ago. Now they are threatening to revoke her driver’s license if she doesn’t give them a big payment up front. Sarah came to me, desperate: She needs me to lend her the money for the IRS. She says she has to keep her license or she won’t be able to pay anyone back. She promises that I’m first, as soon as she takes care of her back taxes. She only needs about $600 up front to keep going, and I could take it out of my savings, but I am hesitant. She already owes me over $3,000! To make matters worse, Sarah has been very edgy since her troubles and nearly bit my head off when I suggested she call her sister in Texas for help. She just won’t do it. I suspect the reason for it has to do with more past bad decisions.

I was raised to believe we should help those less fortunate, and I feel it’s selfish when I have enough to just let her swing, but I don’t feel good about this.

Befuddled Belinda


Dear Belinda;

I wouldn’t feel good about it either.  Sarah has put you in an uncomfortable position – if you give her the money, you are agreeing to continue to be her interest-free bank whenever she gets in trouble. If you don’t give her the money, she knows you’ll feel responsible if she loses her license. You’re a good person. You want to help. But what’s next? Do you keep shelling out her half of the expenses as she continues to come up short?

There’s a difference between helping those less fortunate, and enabling people who keep making bad decisions, so put your guilt away. Let’s look at this from a strictly fact-based view. The one thing you know about Sarah is that she makes bad decisions and borrows money she doesn’t pay back. As you said – after years of struggle, she still keeps having to borrow. Realistically, you have no reason to believe she is ever going to do anything else. What she does have going for her is you: a compassionate person who doesn’t like to see others suffer. But seriously…I think a little suffering would do Sarah a world of good right now.

I know that you are just too “nice” to ask Sarah to solve this problem herself, but that is exactly what you have to do. People get in trouble with the IRS all the time, and they manage to work deals. I doubt if Sarah has tried very hard to find alternatives. If she knows you won’t bail her out, trust me, she’ll try harder. She will never learn how to solve problems herself if you keep solving them for her.

But honestly, I don’t just see one problems here, I see two. 1) Sarah is an adult child who needs to grow up, and 2) you are an adult enabler who is making it possible for her to stay a child forever. If this situation is ever going to improve, you both need to change. Sarah needs to learn how to solve problems on her own and you need to realize that sometimes doing the right thing means saying no.

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