How to Help Others Change Their Bad Spending Habits – Change Anything

Q. Dear Vital Smarts,

My sibling and his family are heading for a serious debt problem and possibly bankruptcy. They are trying to cut expenses here and there but still can’t make ends meet. At the end of the day, their monthly expenses add up to more than they make.

It seems the only way to avoid bankruptcy would be to make big, hard decisions or to borrow money. In the past, they’ve asked us for financial help. Sometimes we’ve been able to help and sometimes we haven’t.

We have a sense that they’re about to approach us again. We aren’t sure whether we want or will be able to help them financially, but we love them and feel deep sorrow for their situation. On the other hand, we work hard to live within our means and struggle with the thought that we shouldn’t have to help others who don’t live within theirs.

We’d like to help them change their lives for the better instead of just bailing them out. How can I help my sibling develop good financial habits and avoid bankruptcy?

Cost-Conscious Sibling

A. Dear Cost-Conscious,

At the core, your question centers on helping, and defining what help means can be problematic. Often, what one person sees as helpful is different from what another person sees as helpful. So in the spirit of trying to help, I’ll first offer ideas that frame the challenge, and then detail specific topics that need to be considered.

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Define what is and is not helpful. In Change Anything, we make a distinction between a friend and an accomplice. A friend is someone who helps you and an accomplice is someone who helps you get in trouble. It is often difficult to tell the difference. When you gave or lent money to your brother, you no doubt intended to be a friend, and perhaps you were. But as your brother’s pattern of behavior becomes apparent, perhaps giving or lending him money, or bailing him out becomes the act of an accomplice. Maybe you are acting as an accomplice by shielding him from the natural consequences of his choices. Maybe, by trying to help him, you are denying him lessons he needs to learn. So it seems you need to initiate a conversation with him about what you think is helpful and what is not helpful. I would suggest initiating the conversation prior to the time he comes to ask you for help.

The key to having this conversation is to hold it at a time when he will feel safe. Don’t hold it in the presence of other listeners, or when either of you is stressed or tired. Begin by saying what you are trying to do (provide as much help as you can) and what you are not trying to do (tell him how to run his life.) You are bringing up this topic because it is difficult and ignoring it won’t help the situation go away. By initiating the conversation about your intentions and limitations, you are stepping forward to help in a productive way.

Diagnose a motivation vs. an ability problem. It’s easy to conclude that if others just wanted to control their urges and their spending, they could show a little deferred gratification and all would be well. However, for many people, the problem is not want to, the problem is can do—more people have a skill-power problem than a will-power problem. And when we try to motivate the unable, we create more frustration than progress. So hold a conversation to diagnose whether or not your brother is unmotivated or unable. If he is truly unable and doesn’t understand what it takes to make and save money or live within a budget, then you can move the conversation to helping him learn new skills that will ensure his long-term success.

Engage in a dialogue about the skills he needs to develop and what he needs to actually do to enable his path out of debt. Introduce your brother to a more robust theory of change. For example, teach him the distinction between friends and accomplices. People who need to change are more likely to succeed if they distance themselves from accomplices, turn accomplices into friends, or just add a couple of friends. Help your brother identify those people who are leading him down the path of financial security or financial failure.

When you get to the more technical aspects of financial literacy, consider several options. First, ask your brother if it would be helpful to list the people, places, and things that are helping and those that are hindering his ability to manage his finances. Often, just by articulating this list, steps forward become clear. During this process, you can also ask if it would be all right if you shared some of the tactics that have helped you and barriers that have been stumbling blocks for you. Second, you might ask if your brother will consider exploring some other expert resources. There are experienced financial consultants who will help people learn what they need to do to get out of debt—how to budget, live within a budget, increase savings, and so on.

In Change Anything, we share what we’ve learned about personal change and we also have a chapter devoted specifically to getting out of debt titled, “Financial Fitness: How to Get out of Debt.” We encourage people to identify the crucial moments where they are tempted to spend too much, and we encourage them to find their unique vital behaviors. Here are four common vital behaviors to financial fidelity we found in our research:

Track everything. The financially fit record every bit of money they spend so they can improve at planning and budgeting.
Know before you go. The financially fit make plans and lists about what they will buy before they go shopping and they stick to that list.
Save before you spend. The financially fit automatically apply 10 percent or more of their paychecks to their bills in order to accelerate debt repayment.
Hold a weekly wealth review. Once a week, at the same time, the financially fit review their budget, discuss deviations, and make improvement plans for the next week.

And to adopt these vital behaviors, the financially fit get the six sources of influence working in their favor.

So in summary, reach out to help, dialogue about skill-power, and find some resources that will teach your brother new skills. Doing these things will do more to help your brother than handing him a check could ever accomplish.

I hope that helps,