I Can’t Afford to Keep Supporting My Dad. How Do I Tell My Family?

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  • For Love & Money is a biweekly column from Insider answering your relationship and money questions.
  • This week, a reader asks how to tell her family they no longer want to give monthly payments to their father.
  • Our columnist says they can decline without being hurtful, and help their siblings do the same.
  • Got a question for our columnist? Write to For Love & Money using this Google form.

Dear For Love & Money,

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


Desperate Not To Disappoint

Dear Desperate,

You’re in a challenging situation. Parents are supposed to take care of their kids, and after a lifetime of this tireless work, the tables turn, and they get to rest when their children start taking care of them.

That’s the expectation. And yet, due to a hundred variables from mental health to financial hardship, this idealistic parent/dynamic frequently doesn’t play out according to that expectation. However, since that dynamic is the standard, people may feel unsupported and at a loss when they find themselves caring for their parents from a young age or financially providing for their parents before typically necessary.

This seems to be where you are, and I want to assure you that your feelings of being emotionally unsettled and financially burdened are understandable and valid. Your reluctance to tell your sister “no” indicates you’re feeling guilty about it, which is also understandable but unnecessary. You’re in a tough spot, but there is a way through.

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 specifics of your father’s situation. I don’t know if your dad is an addict and giving him money is an enabling behavior, or if he is at death’s door and cutting him off financially is essentially accepting that he isn’t going to make it. But reading your letter, I get the sense that you’ve agonized over this situation a great deal and that your decision to say no is what you feel you have to do. So, that’s the conversation I want to help you have with your family.

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

Say something along the lines of, “I know when we started giving dad money every month, it was from a place of concern, and nothing about his circumstances have changed, so our concern and financial support also remain active. But while I still worry about dad, I will no longer give him money. This is hard for me because I know my income is higher than yours and dad’s, but the financial strain has become too much for me. While I can’t make your decisions for you, I can make them for myself. And I can’t continue jeopardizing my security this way.”

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

If your sister is angry, however, I am sure you will hate knowing she feels unsupported and abandoned by you. After all, like you, she already has a parent/child dynamic that probably makes her feel that her safety net is smaller than most. And that is where you must be strong and hold onto your confidence that you are doing the right thing.

It may help 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 learn that she, like you, wants to say “no,” offer to have that conversation with your dad for her or with her. Saying no to our siblings can be hard enough; saying no to our parents, who we’ve often been conditioned to obey from our first breath, is on a whole other level. If you can take that hardship on for your sister, you will give 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. Your situation worries us a great deal, and we still want to help you if we can. But giving you these monthly gifts have financially strained us to the point that we can no longer afford to give you money. Is there another way we can help you?” Or, if your dad is the type that will be too embarrassed to list other ways you and your sister can help him, instead of asking him what you can do, come up with some ideas with your sister beforehand, and offer those to him.

Being a sibling and someone’s child can be so hard. But while you may not be financially strong enough to provide for your entire family, I believe you have the strength to take care of both your loved ones and yourself in this very different but equally important way.

Rooting for you,

For Love & Money

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