What do you say to someone who confides in you to having severe
money woes? Do you chide them for not being more responsible? Or do
you change the subject?
Knowing the right way to respond can prevent you from
trivializing their situation. Experts detail seven things not to
say when someone confesses their financial troubles -- and offer up
what are more appropriate responses.
1. Don't say: "You shouldn't have overspent."
Resist pointing out the obvious, not just because it sounds
condescending, but you could be wrong. When Greg Staffa, of Saint
Cloud, Minn., lost his home to foreclosure, a
local paper covered his story
. "They took a photo of me clearing out my house and all the people
saw was the 4-year-old television," says Staffa. "People would say,
'You must have bought more than you could afford.'" Not true. In
fact, Staffa had been approved for a $250,000 mortgage, but
purchased conservatively at $100,000 less than that sum. He could
afford it until his job disappeared.
"You're not alone. Millions of people descend into debt due to
emergencies." That's the truth. "It's easy to judge someone after
they fall," says Staffa. "But learn all the pieces of the story and
not just a snapshot."
2. Don't say: "Gee, it looks like rain."
Personal discomfort can cause you to change the subject, but
resist, says Chad Nehring, a financial planner and partner in
Conceptual Investment Advisors in Appleton, Wis. "When someone
divulges this information, it's a true cry for help," says Nehring,
who speaks from experience. He's a self-described "reformed
spender" who was $33,000 in credit card debt at age 25. Not being
able to pay bills is painful, he says, but so is getting shut out
by a friend when you're ready to change course.
"Tell me more." A kind demeanor and willingness to just listen can
be incredibly valuable. If they're coming to you, says Nehring,
"They want to get it off their chest and out in the open. Sometimes
they just need a sounding board."
3. Don't say: "My sister's brother-in-law says ...
Never spread rumors or provide poor advice from sketchy sources.
For instance, if the person says he's considering contacting a
credit counseling agency
, telling him that you heard that they're all terrible is a bad
idea. It's not accurate and may prevent that person from getting
"You need to contact a professional." "For someone who is
struggling and reaches out for help, I would recommend pointing
them toward financial education resources," says Randy Jarvis,
president of Union National Bank in Sparta, Wisc. "Adults can turn
to free online sources. For example, the FDIC has a number of
on its website." Additionally, referrals to proper agencies and
experts takes the responsibility off your shoulders, and you won't
be guilty of giving damaging counsel.
4. Don't say: "I totally understand" (when you
Empathy is wonderful, but not when it's empty. If you haven't
experienced how horrible being on the brink of bankruptcy is, don't
pretend you know exactly what they're going through, says Reeta
Wolfsohn, founder of the Center for Financial Social Work in
Asheville, N.C. No one wants a disingenuous response.
"I'm so sorry you're going through this." It's OK if you can't
totally relate. A sincere attempt at understanding counts enough.
"Be kind," says Wolfsohn. "If you can't share a solution, ask
open-ended questions, such as, 'Do you know where to go for help?'
or 'What are you thinking of doing?'"
5. Don't say: "I hope you learned your lesson."
Nothing. When tempted to scold, remind yourself of the classic
adage, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all,"
says Wolfsohn. Then reword the reprimand: "It's an awful situation,
but I'm sure you learned so much from it. I know you don't ever
want to be in this position again." Then, let him take it from
there -- he'll probably list off what he did gain.
6. Don't say: "You poor thing."
That person came to you for guidance and friendship, not pity.
According to Nehring, calling someone "poor" can be translated into
"pathetic." It means, "Boy, am I glad I'm not in your shoes," says
Nehring, and if he wasn't depressed before, he certainly will be
"You're strong, and you will survive this." Be compassionate yet
positive with your statements. Unlike for terminal illnesses, there
are often cures to money woes. To realize what they are, though,
the person must maintain realistic faith that they're out there and
achievable. Conveying a sense of power is always the right thing to
7. Don't say: "Let's grab dinner/drinks/coffee and talk
When someone is trying to figure out how to keep their lights on,
they're not going to want to spend $50 on dinner and drinks. It's
agonizing to not be able to afford even the simplest of life's
pleasures. Think before you speak, so you don't have to pull your
foot out of your mouth later.
"Come over! I'll cook and we can talk over dinner." Nothing conveys
love and caring like a homemade meal. Besides, it relieves the
pressure on an empty wallet, says Nehring. "Anytime you're talking
over food, the barriers come down." And when they do, you can truly
become the caring, supportive friend that a person in dire straits
Chances are good that you know someone suffering from serious
money problems. When they're ready to talk, it may be into your ear
-- so be ready to soothe with the right responses.
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