Relative Support If your spouse starts dumping your commingled cash into supporting a relative, are you going to be supportive? BY FRANCINE KIZNER
Sharing your hard earned money with your spouse's family can be tough.
"When my father-in-law said, 'Retirement? I don’t need retirement—I have four boys!' I knew we might be in trouble," said Nicole*. As things turned out, her father-in-law hadn’t saved a dime for his retirement—and his four sons had to get together to figure out how to support their aging parents.
Would you be ready to take on supporting members of your spouse’s family? Could you even afford to? If you’re already in a situation where you’re supporting a relative, what conflicts are you looking at and how can they be resolved?
First, you have to consider your relationship with the relative—if you have a good relationship, you’ll likely be happy to help, even if it involves cutting back on a few luxuries for yourself, says Dr. Molly Barrow, psychologist and author of Matchlines: A Revolutionary New Way of Looking at Relationships and Making the Right Choices in Love. Basically, if you’re helping grandma stay independent despite her meager Social Security checks, it won’t stress you out as much as seeing your spouse dump money into a sibling with a drug habit.
Speaking of drug habits: In the case where you’re fueling an addiction or an irresponsible lifestyle, you’ll need to discuss whether it’s even appropriate to help the person. Remember, sometimes tough love is the answer.
But even if the relative honestly needs the money to get by, if the extra expense is causing too much of a financial or emotional hardship, "You need to make a choice between your old family and your new family," says Barrow. Her advice: "Choose your spouse!"
What if you’re like Nicole and have other sibling’s who are shouldering some of the expense? In Nicole’s case, one of the brothers isn’t able to contribute as much money as the other three, which causes some resentment. But it’s not like you can get everyone on equal footing instantly. Barrow recommends looking at your contribution as a percentage of your income, and keeping it the same among siblings to make things feel fair.
Another issue Nicole ran into was one of the brothers’ wives didn’t want to support her in-laws because her parents were super savers and didn’t need any help. While she had trouble seeing the situation from her husband’s family’s point of view, she couldn’t really say, "Take back those years of not saving and cough up the cash, gramps."
Sometimes, the choice gets even more complicated. Depending on your spouse’s cultural, religious or family values, supporting a relative may not be a choice—it could be an obligation. And questioning that obligation could be a dead-end argument. In this case, Barrow says, "You must trust your spouse. Know that when times are hard, easier times are around the corner."
Just reminding yourself that you’re doing the right thing could be enough for a while, but it may also make you feel guilty about resenting your spouse’s commitment, and "When guilt, resentment and money are involved in an argument, it can be explosive," says Barrow.
If the problem feels beyond your control, talk to a financial planner or a counselor to try and figure things out. Barrow also recommends that you don’t bring the relative you’re supporting into your home unless absolutely necessary, because if you can’t maintain your privacy and home life, chances are you’ll be even more stressed.
So how did Nicole handle the new financial tug? She felt that her family’s contribution to her in-laws was manageable and chalked it up as another monthly expense. But Nicole says, "If it was ever an issue of us not being able to support our kids, we would choose our kids. But it hasn’t come to that."
Barrrow would agree. If you’re looking at supporting a relative—whether it’s yours or your spouse’s—she says, "You should help your extended family as much as possible, but you can’t sacrifice your life and your marriage."
*Name has been changed to protect person’s privacy