Setting Monetary Boundaries With Family

Eric has parents living in another country. His father is horrendous at finances and debt-ridden, and his mother is bedridden with dementia. What kind of monetary boundary should he set?

QUESTION: Eric in Los Angeles has parents living in another country. His father is horrendous at finances and debt-ridden, and his mother is bedridden with dementia. What kind of monetary boundary should he set in regard to his own family and his parents? How does he talk to his dad about his mom’s quality of life? Dave helps Eric see where the boundaries begin and end.

ANSWER: The monetary boundaries sound like this. There are several things that enter into that, but the first one is that before you can give money to anyone, your obligation is to your family—your wife and kids. You have to take care of them. If they’re being taken care of and you’ve got some money and you want to share it with someone who’s hurting, then you’re able to. But you can’t share with someone who’s hurting when you’re broke just because you feel guilty or just because it’s your parents or just because… You have to take care of your family first. That is foundational.

Once you’ve taken care of your family first, then the question is when you get ready to help anyone—parents included—am I enabling bad behavior? Am I giving a drunk a drink? If I’m going to, I don’t want to do much of that. I may do a little of that just to kind of make their quality of life good or something, but I’m not going to set up this thing to where I’m guilted into something, I’m frustrated, I’m mad all the time because I’m throwing money at something, and they’re just misbehaving with all of it. I’m not going to play that. You’re not under obligation to do that. As a matter of fact, you’re under obligation to love anyone, especially your parents, better than that. You wouldn’t give them cocaine if they were addicted to cocaine. Effectively, when someone’s misbehaving with money and you keep throwing money them, you’re enabling the bad behavior. You’re causing the bad behavior.

You’ve got to balance that out. Then you’ve got a sick mom who’s not got a behavior. She’s got dementia. You’ve just got to make sure she’s cared for. You’ve just got to do as best you can. Once your family’s taken care of, take care of her. As far as your father’s quality of life, he probably has a military income. He’s got that income coming in. Aside from your mom’s extra expenses, he could live on that. If you’re going to give him money, you’ve got to talk to him about controlling the money he does have. He’s going to have to start handling it in a way that you’re okay with or you’re not going to give him money.

Basically, your dad can provide the care that your mom’s getting. You can provide that. You can pay those bills directly, but he should have enough money to pay his basic existence coming in from the military retirement. If you want to help with some of the miscellaneous and extra expenses with your mom, that’s fine.

As far as your mom’s quality of life and discussing those kinds of things with him, that’s a tough discussion. That’s a discussion to be had with your pastor, with your dad, his pastor, to able to sit down and look at that situation. At what point do we do a DNR, do not resuscitate, order as part of a living will? I have that, so I don’t care to be kept in a vegetative state. I’ve stated that in my living will. If you want to be, that’s okay with me. But I have the right to choose that part of it. How do you sit down and talk about it? That’s one of the most difficult conversations you can possibly have. In the middle of that, be talking about money, too? This is really difficult.

I think anytime you’re having tough conversations, the only thing that’s ever worked for me relationally is just to say out loud that this is a tough conversation and awkward and hard. Be present in their lives physically and spiritually and not just a burr under their saddle, but also then you earn the right to be the burr under their saddle and to spur them on to better works, if you will.

You’ve got a lot of things going on here, and I don’t think you’re going to get a result that’s not messy. I think you better be prepared for messy because this is a messy deal. While you’re being firm and guiding with wisdom, be gentle and graceful, too. You won’t be at the end of this being ashamed for having been graceful. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be motivated by guilt trips and act out in a way that causes your family to be harmed in this process.