I can’t afford to continue supporting my dad. How do I tell my family?

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  • For Love & Money is a bi-weekly Insider column answering your questions about relationships and money.
  • This week, a reader asks how to tell her family that they no longer want to give her father monthly payments.
  • Our columnist says that they can decline without hurt and help their brothers to do the same.
  • Do you have a question for our columnist? Write to For love and money using this google form.

Dear by love and money,

How do you decide when to stop giving money to a family member? My dad is not doing well and has been unemployed for most of my adult life. Aside from being emotionally disturbing, this hasn’t affected me much until recently. My sister started giving her money a few months ago, and what seemed like the obvious choice to split the gift with her turned into a monthly financial burden she didn’t expect. How do I say no when I’m financially better off than both of us?


Desperate not to disappoint

Desperate dear,

You are in a challenging situation. Parents are supposed to take care of their children, and after a lifetime of this tireless work, the tables are turned and they can rest when their children begin to take care of them.

That is the expectation. And yet, due to hundreds of variables, from mental health to financial difficulties, this idealistic parent/dynamic often doesn’t play out according to that expectation. However, since that dynamic is the norm, people can feel unsupported and lost when they find themselves caring for their parents from a young age or financially supporting their parents sooner than is normally necessary.

It seems that this is where you are, and I want to assure you that your feelings of emotional instability and financial burden are understandable and valid. Your reluctance to say “no” to your sister indicates that you feel guilty about it, which is also understandable but unnecessary. You are in a difficult situation, but there is a way out.

How to say no to your family

First, I want to clarify that I am only answering your question, “how do I say no?” I don’t know the details of your father’s situation. I don’t know if your dad is an addict and giving him money is favorable behavior, or if he is on the brink of death and cutting him off financially is essentially accepting that he won’t make it. But reading your letter, I have the feeling that you have become very distressed by this situation and that your decision to say that is not what you feel you have to do. So that’s the conversation I want to help you have with his family.

Since it was originally your sister’s idea to give money to your father, and you only started contributing to help her, you should discuss the problem with her first.

Say something like, “I know that when we started giving dad money every month, it was from a place of concern, and nothing in his circumstances has changed, so our concern and financial support remain active as well. But while I still care about dad, I won’t give him money anymore. This is hard for me because I know my income is higher than yours and dad’s, but the financial stress has become too much for me. Even though I can’t make decisions for you, I can make them myself. And I can’t keep jeopardizing my safety like this.”

Your sister may be mad at you because you’re telling her that your priorities are different from hers, and we all tend to get a little annoyed when other people order their lives differently than we do. That said, by prioritizing your financial security in this unapologetically way, you’ll show your sister that she can do it, too. At first this may not matter, but if there comes a time when she has to choose between giving your dad a check and paying the rent, she’ll remember the example you set for her and feel better about the decision she has to make.

However, if your sister is angry, I’m sure you’ll hate to know that she feels abandoned and unsupported by you. After all, like you, she already has a parent/child dynamic that probably makes her feel like her safety net is smaller than most. And that’s where you need to be strong and hold on to your confidence that you’re doing the right thing.

It might be useful to lend some of that strength to your sister. Ask her if the financial strain of giving your dad money every month has become too much for her. If you find out that she, like you, means “no,” offer to have that conversation with your dad for her or with her. Saying no to our brothers can be quite difficult; Saying no to our parents, whom we have often been conditioned to obey from our first breath, is on another level. If you can take on that hardship for her sister, you’ll be giving her a tremendous financial and emotional gift.

To have that conversation with your dad, you could say something like, “Dad, you know how much my sister and I love you. We care a lot about your situation and we still want to help if we can. But giving you these monthly gifts has financially strained us to the point of that we can’t give you money anymore. Is there any other way we can help you?” Or, if your dad is the type who will be too embarrassed to list other ways you and your sister can help him, instead of asking him what you can do, he brainstorms some ideas with your sister beforehand and offer them to you.

Being a brother and someone’s son can be very difficult. But while you may not be financially strong enough to support your entire family, I believe you have the strength to care for both your loved ones and yourself in this very different but equally important way.

cheering for you,

for love and money

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