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Ask Dave

Defining Help

James's brother is having financial problems, and James wants to know if he and his wife should help him since James and his wife don't have any debt and an emergency fund. Dave advises James to define "help."

QUESTION: James in Oklahoma City and his wife are expecting their first child. His brother is having financial problems in his family, and James wants to know if they should help them out since James and his wife don’t have any debt and an emergency fund. Dave advises James to define “help.”

ANSWER: I think we have to define “help.” Help is if you give him some money, does it—five years from now—change his life? Does it get him on the right path? We don’t want to give a drunk a drink. That’s not help.

I would buy him a $500 car in a heartbeat if I thought it would cause him to go get some work. I might even help him with some of his bills, but it would be helping him. It wouldn’t be doing it for him. Basically, the way they’re handling money is if you gave them $10,000 cash, it would be gone in three months. That says we’re not helping him by just giving him money. We’ve got to get down under there, and the truth is the problem with really helping people is it requires more effort than just giving them money. It takes up time and emotional space because sometimes they don’t appreciate it and you get conflict and everything else.

What would I do if I were in your shoes? I’d make a list. If you could get him to do everything you wanted him to do, what would you have him do? I would have him do a budget, and I’d have them start living on necessities first and not blowing money, as you said, on stupid stuff. That would be part of that budget. I would have him get some kind of work with that car, if I got him a car. I would have them go to Financial Peace University and learn how to handle money.

You take him to coffee, and the two of you sit and talk. Say, “I’m going to draft up a little one-page thing that says I’m going to buy you a car, and I’m going to pay off up to $2,000 worth of your bills as you pay them off. I’m going to match you one for one,” or whatever you want to do. You don’t have to do that much. I don’t mind helping somebody. If he pays off a dollar, I’ll pay off a dollar. I’ll match him on his debt reduction plan. But they’re going to be on a written plan, and they’re going to quit blowing money, and the two of them are going to be in agreement. We’re going to get organized. We’re going to get to work. He’s going to get to work doing something.

I would put him through class. I would say he’s getting a job of some kind doing something. I don’t care what it is but just showing some effort somewhere. There’s stuff out there to do. It’s just not stuff he wants to do. Let’s get busy doing something. The activity is good for him. He gets depressed sitting at home watching Oprah reruns. Something like, “Go to class, get some kind of income coming in, be in agreement with your spouse on this that your wife has to be on board with it too—not just you by yourself, and you guys get organized. Get on a written budget so that you quit blowing money on this or that. Let me be a part of you getting your life back together. If you’ll do that stuff, then I’ll give you a car and this, and I’ll do that. But I’m not going to just throw money at stupid, because all it does is make stupid bigger.” You don’t have to say it exactly that way, but that’s the deal.

If giving people money fixed their lives, then a lot of people would’ve been fixed by the government. It doesn’t work, and you’re not helping. It’s mythology. You just wish you were helping, and you want to help. But it’s not really helping.