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Miss Conduct

The money spigot

Can you say no to repeated requests for cash? Plus negative comments targeting teenagers.

By Robin Abrahams
August 9, 2009

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When is it OK to decline to lend someone money? I have been lending money to a former neighbor for two years to help him avoid foreclosure on his home (he has been out of work for most of this time). My salary cannot cover his expenses and mine, and my savings are slowly disappearing. We have known each other for 40 years but are not close. I am beginning to feel that as long as I have some savings remaining, I cannot in good conscience deny his request for help. I have not discussed this with anyone, as I feel it would be a breach of trust, but I need some professional advice. C.C. / Boston

I hope your quest for professional advice doesn’t end with me, C.C. You should talk to a financial counselor about how to repair the damage to your savings, and to the other kind of counselor about how you got yourself into a situation like this to begin with. Is this the first time in your life you have felt obligated to hurt yourself in order to help another person, or is this a pattern of behavior for you? Because if it’s the latter, then please, C.C., get some help. Don’t worry about confidentiality; you needn’t mention your neighbor’s name, but you are certainly entitled to say what you’ve done with your own money.

You are not obligated to bankrupt yourself to keep another person out of trouble. No one would ever say you should. You say you are “lending” money to your neighbor, but given his situation and your own concerns, you clearly don’t believe you’re going to be repaid. Don’t spend down your own savings and endanger your own home and security on your former neighbor’s behalf.

It won’t be easy to tell this man that you can no longer help him. Whatever his situation may be, it doesn’t sound as though he’s used to considering your circumstances, so he may react badly. You have to do it anyway.

There will always be pain and injustice in the world. We can alleviate some of it, but not all. Right now there is someone in Massachusetts who needs a kidney. There are children in Africa who need food. Schools in Afghanistan -- and Boston -- that need books. According to the Pirkei Avot, an old Jewish text, “You are not obligated to complete the task [of fixing the world], but neither are you free to desist from it.” You keep trying to make the world a better place, C.C. It’s important work. But your efforts to save your neighbor are done.

I have four daughters, ages 13, 10, 8, and 4. Every time my husband and I visit certain family members, we get the old “Oh, it’s going to start. Teenagers -- you’re in for it.” In my opinion, my girls are well-behaved and have great manners. I don’t want my girls to hear this, because it’s negative. Is there something I can say that will get my point across tactfully? Anonymous / Boston

People don’t mean these statements quite as seriously as you’re taking them. I doubt they’re actually predicting that you’re in for a family drama of, er, Juno-esque proportions, but only that it’s going to be emotionally challenging to have four girls going through adolescence in the same house. (Which it will be, no matter how well-mannered they are.) So, instead of reacting in a tense, emotional “It’s all about me!” fashion to these comments -- you know, like a typical teenager would -- come up with some family joke about it that can amuse you in-house and disconcert outsiders. You could, for example, act as if braving the shoals and rapids of adolescence were some Buzz Lightyear-worthy family adventure you were all going to embark upon: “To puberty -- and beyond!”

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Her new book is Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners.

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