“Pleeeeeze?” Your nine-year-old daughter has spent her allowance but is begging you to buy her a toy she “just has to have.”
“I really will pay you back this time. I promise.” Your 30-something son, despite a history of non-payment that would make a banker flinch, is asking for another loan to get him out of another financial hole.
If you can’t say no to requests like these, you might be financially enabling your children. It is one of the most common harmful money behaviors I see.
Most parents want the best for their children. But when does extending a helping hand to a child become emotionally or financially disabling? Sometimes parents’ heartfelt desire to help paves the way to children developing an attitude of entitlement and a disabling financial dependency on others.
Financial enabling is the inability to know when to say no when people continually ask for money. It harms both the recipient and the giver. Often, enablers can’t say no even when they know they can’t afford to keep giving money. Research suggests that about 60 percent of parents provide financial support to children who are out of school.
Why Do People Enable?
Why do parents—including your clients—enable? Often out of love and good intentions that are loaded with unconscious baggage. The enabling may be a quest to meet parents’ emotional needs. It is often driven by feelings of guilt and shame. This can come from just about anything, but divorce, hard financial times and abuse are some of the leading reasons. Other reasons are wanting to save the child from experiencing a financial struggle or a money script that giving money equals love.
Some signs of parental enabling are:
- Sacrificing or jeopardizing your financial well-being for children.
- Having trouble saying “no” to children’s requests for money.
- Repeatedly being taken advantage of financially by your kids.
- Lending money without a clear agreement for repayment.
- Feeling resentment or anger after giving money.
It is no wonder that financial enabling usually ends up damaging the relationship, which is usually the opposite of the enabler’s intent. Research finds enabling often leads to depression, a sense of being out of control and poor physical health for both parties.
Financial enabling often ends up damaging the enabler’s financial health by eroding net worth, increasing credit card debt, diminishing financial independence and even bankruptcy.
Financial enabling also damages the recipients. The parents’ good intentions often backfire and can result in adult children failing to develop their own financial skills and experiencing emotional side effects. In severe cases, when adult children have become dependent on money from parents, they can experience fear and anxiety over being cut off, anger and resentment and lower levels of motivation and passion to succeed and become financially self-sufficient.
Not all parental giving is enabling. Some signs of healthy giving are:
- It is clear to both parent and child that the money is a one-time gift with no expectation of repayment.
- The gift will not harm the giver’s financial well-being.
- The use of the funds is transparent.
- There is no history of chronic requests for money.
- The money promotes children’s financial health rather than making it easier for them to continue harmful financial behavior.
If you realize that you are financially enabling your children, what can you do? As with other destructive behaviors, sheer willpower probably won’t be enough for change. You may need a trusted guide to help you explore the history behind the behaviors. Engaging the help of a financial therapist, financial life planner or a psychotherapist with some expertise in money issues is a good place to start.
Rick Kahler, MSFP, ChFC, is a pioneer in integrating financial planning and psychology. He is a 2019 recipient of the InvestmentNews annual Innovator Award and one of Investopedia’s top 100 most influential financial advisers. He is a distinguished adjunct professor at Golden Gate University and a co-author of four books blending financial planning and therapy.