Updated on 09.19.14

Inspiring Others to Financial Responsibility

Trent Hamm

(Without Being Preachy)

Quite often, in our day to day lives, we interact with people who spend with reckless abandon and don’t think for a moment about the long-term financial implications of what they’re doing – or, when they do think about it, they simply believe that someone or something will take care of it for them in the future.

For those of us who really understand the tremendous value of getting our financial houses in order, this can be incredibly frustrating, particularly when we see someone we care about falling into that trap or, even worse, believing that we will eventually be the ones that bail them out of whatever situation they’re involved with.

In these situations, the tempting response is to try to directly “set them straight.” If you simply lay out the facts of the situation and point out how their current economic path is unsustainable, they’ll begin to see the light, right?


Very few people really enjoy being told how they’re doing things wrong. Quite often, they’ll reject such statements and, on some level, resent you for the statements you’ve made to them. I have seen this happen far too many times when people have interventions and discussions with people on a bad financial path.

It just doesn’t add up to success.

Instead, I find that a set of completely different tactics tends to work well in these situations. Rather than trying to force the horse to drink, focus instead on leading the horse gently to the water.

Six Tactics to Inspire Others to A Strong Financial Path

1. Give them chances to show they’re responsible

People often start revealing their best traits when they’re given an opportunity to do so. Let the person with the poor financial history be involved with any major financial choices you may have in common – don’t just decide things for them, because that creates the impression that you’re the boss and they’re the follower, that they don’t really have to worry about it. Tell them that you trust them and that you believe they’re up to the task of carrying their part in whatever you’re working on together.

2. Follow failures not with rage, but with quiet disappointment

I find that, over and over again, quiet disappointment is far more effective as a response to someone who has let you down than a pile of rage ever will be. If someone lets you down, do everything you can to avoid exploding at them. Don’t let your emotions overwhelm the situation. Instead, calmly state that they did, in fact, let you down, and divest yourself of as much of the immediate situation as you can.

3. Offer them occasional tips for good financial living that work well for you

Make sure these might actually apply in their life. Don’t send them daily emails filled with frugality tips. Instead, wait for the really good ones that might actually click with them, then send that idea along to them. The goal is to help them improve their own life, not to make their life mimic your life.

4. Have a heart-to-heart, but not about the finances

Tell the person how much they really do matter to you, and also tell them that if they ever need to figure out what the next step is in their life, you will drop what you can to help them figure it out. This type of talk is hard to do, but it can often be a life changer to a person who is wandering and is trying to figure out what does come next in their life.

5. Decide now whether you’re willing to mop up their mistakes

Some people spend years worrying about having to take care of their parents without really deciding if that’s what they’re going to do or not. Don’t put yourself in that situation. Decide, right now, whether you’re going to take care of them in the long term or not, and then act accordingly. Don’t hedge your bets because you’ll just carry a painful decision out for much longer, making your life miserable and probably adding misery to their life, too.

6. Wait for their “bottom,” then gently offer help

Although a low point can often be incredibly painful, it can also be an incredibly valuable learning experience for people. It is at that point that a person realizes, for the first time, that they’re following a path that doesn’t work. It’s at that time when they look around them and see who their true friends are, as they are the ones who are willing to help them at this low point. That’s when your help will really matter. That’s when a helping hand won’t cause resentment, but will be appreciated. That’s when it’ll build into something more than just a quick fix.

I’ve applied all of these at various points in my own life when helping others. Over and over again, I found that being much more passive with my help was the right thing to do.

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  1. Carole says:

    I have found out the hard way that most people resent unasked for advice on religious matters, health matters and financial matters.

  2. Jon says:

    I agree with Carole. If they don’t ask for advice, you should just keep it to yourself. It always comes off as preachy if not solicitated.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    I’m with Carole & Jon. Assuming this is about other adults (not your minor children), then a) just live your life by your own rules and, #2, don’t try to fix other people no matter how much what they’re doing bothers you. If they come to you for help (based on the good example your life has shown them), answer their questions or provide strategies they ask for.

    Trent’s best suggestion here is to decide early on whether this is someone you are willing to help – financially or otherwise – when asked.

  4. Becky says:

    I agree about unsolicited advice. But, then, I don’t want to be forced to listen to people complain about something that is within their power to improve upon.

    I.e. “I am so broke”…as the person stands there with her second grande mocha frappachino…and “it’s not my fault”

  5. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    Trent, something you said in yesterday’s reader mailbag stuck with me as being very true. If you decide that you are going to take care of someone then don’t be resentful about it. You chose to do so, you could have chosen otherwise. Once you make that choice then do so gracefully and without bitterness.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with the other comments so far. I can see these tips still causing a lot of resentment, especially if it’s your parents or adult children you’re dealing with. I think the best thing you can do is lead by example and be there for them when they ask for help.

  7. Tracy says:

    Personal finances are nobody’s business but those intimately involved – usually the person and their spouse. And to be honest, unless somebody gives you their full financial situation, you really don’t know what it is. Someone can be stressing out about a checking/savings balance being lower than they like but be perfectly fine in their overall retirement portfolio – or they can actually be in dire straits and neither act like or it even know it.

    “I’m so broke” can mean that somebody is up to their eyeball in credit card debt and has no savings … or it could just mean an unexpected expense cropped up that they’re having to budget for, or even an expected one. It’s a very personal emotion and one person’s feeling broke is another person’s flush with cash.

    That’s a little off-topic, but my point is, I just don’t have a clue who these suggestions would be suitable for … they’re certainly not appropriate for a friend or any adult you’re not married to.

    To me, the only proper course of action is IF somebody else is bringing up money, to say “well, I have an interest in personal finance, if you ever want to talk about it, I’d be happy to tell you what works for me or what I’ve read works for other people.” And that’s it.

  8. Jules says:

    You may as well have written “give them a lobotomy”–because really, what it comes down to is that they need to change their behaviors, and it is very hard to get people to do that.

    It’s about reinforcing wanted behaviors and making unwanted behaviors more difficult, and that takes a lot more consistently-applied effort than merely having a heart-to-heart. It’s why so many people fail at training their dogs.

  9. Diane says:

    “Quiet disappointment” is passive-agressive speak for “guilt them over it.”

    Look, either you help someone or you don’t. If you help someone who has shown themselves to be fairly irresponsible over time and displayed bad behaviors, then you help them as a mitzvah and good deed alone. If you expect a change of behavior, to be paid back, effusive thanks, or whatever, you will be disappointed.

    Help. Don’t help. But helping with expectations is a mug’s game.

  10. kristine says:

    Diane- I agree- help without expectation. And if you can’t swing the no-expectation mindset, then don’t help.

  11. Dorothy says:

    Great set of comments. Trent, I think you’re overstepping on this one.

    Diane is spot on. NOthing makes you love someone as much as doing something for them. And nothing makes someone resent you more than doing something for them. It’s really a tough situation. It’s rare that someone has “bottomed”, is ready to make REAL changes, and asks for your help.

  12. getagrip says:

    Two of the points make the most sense to me.

    Offering someone additional outside advice on something you actually discussed with them, assuming it is occasional, can be helpful.

    Deciding the limits of the help you’ll give up front is a good idea. Diving in to rescue someone is admirable, but when they’re flailing and tearing at you trying to save themselves, you have to know when to kick away and switch tactics or depending on how bad you’re getting mauled, let it go and get more qualified help.

  13. Interested Reader says:

    I hate the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” thing because it always comes across as passive aggressive.

    Plus there’s a huge differnce between being mad at someone and expressing that anger and reacting with a “pile of rage” and “exploding” at someone.

    If someone’s first reaction reaction is “rage” and “exploding” at someone then maybe that person has anger management issues. It’s entirely possible to be mad at someone and convey that anger in a construtive manner.

  14. Des says:

    I think these tips are great if we’re talking about teaching minor children about finances. If we’re talking about grown adults, then I agree with the other comments that these are entirely inappropriate.

  15. Gretchen says:

    Two things that are none of anyone else’s buisness:

    finances and weight.

    Stay out of it*. Especially no passive agressive “quiet dispointment” crap.

    *possible exception to this rule being your actual spouse.

  16. Tamara says:

    I agree with the comments here. Personal finance is one of those things like smoking or weight loss; you can’t force people into changing to benefit /you/ rather than /themselves/.

    In other words, they have to want to do it. Trying to goad a person toward ‘the water’ is more likely to make them dig in their heels and continue self-destructive behavior because /no one/ likes being told they’re wrong. And as someone who deals with bipolar disorder I know more than the average bear about /that/ twisted little bit of the human psyche!

    This is not to suggest that one should give up on helping their loved ones entirely. The best thing to do is to slip them a bit of psychological trickery – make them think /they/ came up with the motivation to change rather than you pushing them into it, then help them with a plan to succeed – and /follow through/! That last step is so important, without adequate support even the most strong-willed person will backslide and could end up right back where they started – or worse.

  17. Jeanette says:

    Diane, you said it perfectly.

    And I agree with others, ditch the passive-aggressive “I’m disappointed.”

    One thing about helping. In some cases, “helping” out financially can be enabling. Hard call in many cases, but as others said, help without resentment, guilt or strings. If you cannot do that, then don’t “help.”

    FYI: If help is not freely given, without strings or obligations, it’s not help. It’s some other kind of exchange.

    With money, the real issues are never really about money or spending. They go far deeper. It’s the one thing that is rarely addressed in an ongoing fashion on a long-term basis.

    Over the years, I’ve observed that people who have what they need on an emotional level tend to be able to create a healthy financial life regardless of their income, etc.

    ON the other hand, I’ve seen people who made fortunes, millions and had great jobs who got themselves into all kinds of financial trouble.

    We really need to understand what motivates us to spend or to make poor (or no) financial choices.

    I almost think, when it comes to couples, that all should be required to give full financial disclosure and undergo counseling PRIOR to any marriage or live-in situation. Few things are as destructive as ongoing financial problems.

  18. Matthew says:

    Well I have encouraged co workers to adopt savings plans ie pay yourself first by automatic deposit. I am in HR so can sort of give unsolicited advice…I get them to thinking about savings rates.

    In my personal life, I have been helping out a friend who is unemployed. I have been paying for his cell phone bill, car maint and gas. The exchange for me is that he runs errands for me.
    I freely do it, appreciate that I can drive less as I send him on pick up the dry cleaning type tasks. Win/win.

    I have been thinking about gifting my two Nieces $13,000 each as Christmas presents to help toward their down payments to buy homes. But I dont want to attache strings…or maybe I should. As part of me doesnt want to see the money frittered away. I would prefer it be kept as capital. But then once the gift is made, that is not my call.

    Still mulling this one over…

  19. deRuiter says:

    “believing that we will eventually be the ones that bail them out of whatever situation they’re involved with.” Don’t help them if they refuse and have refused to help themselves. It’s tiresome to see thrifty, hard working people who have saved, keep throwing money lifelines (and damaging themselves financially) to profligates, who REFUSE to live in a thrifty manner. Also, do not end sentences with prepositions Trent. It’s bad grammar. The FAT (and don’t give me glandular!) wish to be fat more than to eat less and eat healthy. The financial cliffhangers wish to live that way more than they wish to cut back and live a thrifty lifestyle. The smoker, the drinker, the doper all value their destructive action more than they value the results of stopping the action. YOU CAN’T CHANGE THE BEHAVIOR OF ANY OF THESE PEOPLE BY PREACHING, you have to let them go, and eventually some may change, but most do not. “PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF.” You live a thrifty, careful lifestyle, and let the rest of the world, including parents, children, other relatives, and friends, go off that financial cliff, and let them pick up the pieces. Adults are responsible for their own behavior.
    Matthew #18, this one is EASY. Let each girl buy her house, give girl a check for half of this generous gift made out to her finance company and prepay on her mortgage, that way you are sure the money isn’t wasted. The benefit on saved interest, early in the mortgage cycle, is AMAZING! The next calendar year, you do the same with second check, thereby avoiding paying gift tax. Do not make checks out to the girls or they will buy new cars and your money will be wasted.

  20. Andrew says:

    Please recognize that, no matter how well-organized, thrifty, and far-seeing you are about financial matters, there are likely to be other areas where your behavior and attitudes are short-sighted, destructive, and incomprehensible to others. It’s called being a human being.

    If asked for advice, give it freely. Otherwise, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!!

  21. Lou says:

    Financial ineptitude is not necessarily laziness. Money management is like any other human process that involves both talent and skill in several ways. Basic arithmetic capability lies along a continuum (Remember the fact that Einstein couldn’t balance his checkbook?)

    Then there are the examples from childhood – a factor that Trent has mentioned repeatedly in describing his own early incompetence with finances. If I’ve never seen it done and never done it, how do I know where to begin?

    Next is the practice effect -to be good at something, you have to practice it repeatedly. And most of us fall into a pattern of doing the things we are good at and avoiding the things that come hard. This can be especially true in a marriage, where tasks can be allocated based on existing skills.

    I have a relative who, after losing his financially competent wife, often had calls from bill collectors and his utilities cut off, despite sufficient cash on hand to write the checks – his priorities were never on paperwork, and he had no money management skills. His kids worried all the time.

    A couple of years ago, one of his adult children offered to manage his finances; said “Dad, put me on your checking account and let me pay your bills” They sat down together, the son asked the questions needed to establish a budget plan and they set up a box for Dad to drop in the unopened incoming bills. Twice a month the son comes for dinner, pulls out the bills, transfers $ to savings, writes the checks for dad to mail. Dad uses his ATM card based on his balance in checking and everybody is happy.

    Circumstances vary. People are not widgets. Hard and fast rules seldom work.

  22. LeahGG says:

    #18 Matthew: I would tell your nieces that you are interested in helping them purchase a home, and that you have set aside X money for it. Let them know that when they are ready to close on a home, you will transfer that money to them to help them with the down payment.
    Be very clear when you give the money that this is what it’s for.

    My dad opened an account for me when I was 10, put in a certain amount of money. He’s been managing the account ever since. Even though I am married, I have never touched a cent in the account, because the understanding is that it is for the down payment on my first home.

    While we don’t touch it, when my husband and I consider the amount of money to be spent on our home (we plan to buy in the next 2 years), we take this money into account.

    The only other situation in which we would consider using this money is a medical necessity, because it is clear that while this money is mine, it absolutely has strings attached.

    That said, I wouldn’t think twice about using it for home improvements or basic furnishings (apartments where I live come without closet space, for example) when we do buy a home.

  23. WillHarper says:

    #5, Gal, has it right. One of the most common conflicts I see in people is the stress between what they are personally inspired to do, and an irrational expectation that others will be grateful, responsible or equally inspired. Sorry, that’s never going to happen. I finally found peace in my late forties by recognizing this. My brother, on the other hand, still tries to “Daddy” everyone and gets disappointed at the outcome.

  24. AniVee says:

    @ #18 Matthew “But then once the gift is made, that is not my call.”
    Oh, I beg to disagree… (you seem to be part of the sweetest, most unjudgmental family ever, and you are voluntarily opting out of something you have every right to be a part of).

    In my family if someone lent you money (it was always a loan, no interest charged, but had to be paid back) they also bought the right to tell you what to do with your money until the loan was repaid…any and ALL of your money, as the loan money could be considered to have gone to any frivolous end, even though it was requested for a specific purpose. (Think: “she needed for $2,000 to fix her car, but she just went to VEGAS for the weekend????”)

    This made us all very reluctant to get into any financial trouble and ever ask for loans or bail-outs, and was the greatest lesson I could have learned as a kid. I had emergency bail-out funds at age 12 from baby-sitting money, just to avoid the nagging and the fish-eye looks.

    In their old age the elders actually began to give away their money, to the amazement of all, and they explained it was for tax purposes and because they knew we were all “tightwads” and would use it to a good end.

    @#19 deRuiter – as usual, I agree with everything you say – my kind of frugal!

  25. AnnJo says:

    Trent said, “Let the person with the poor financial history be involved with any major financial choices you may have in common.”

    I would do everything possible to avoid having someone with a poor financial history involved in major financial choices with me. That not only seems risky to my own interests but a set-up for failure for the other person and likely to damage the relationship.

    Generally, the closest I come to financial advice to acquaintances and friends is to mention, when a related subject comes up, some effort I’ve made that saved me money or re-directed my financial choices, such as negotiating with my cable company for a lower rate, or devoting the money I used to spend on lattes into a vacation fund for travel to Europe. If someone is interested, they’ll ask more; if not, the thought has been placed for the future, and I leave it at that.

    I have intervened on occasion when young family members have been on the verge of major financial mistakes (in one case, making an offer on a house that was clearly an inspection nightmare). I prevented the disasters, but it made for some tense family dynamics for a while.

  26. Larabelle says:

    I have found thru the hard way that sometimes the best example is to let people financially fall. Do not try to “help” them unless asked otherwise keep your mouth shut. Let them make a disaster of their finances and then be on stand by to listen to them…and whatever you do, do not loan them money.

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