Dear Dr. Elia,
My question is a little different from those you typically seem to address. Several years ago my husband and I were approached by a distant cousin who told us he was desperate and had nowhere else to turn. Apparently he was in a difficult financial situation and was about to lose his home.
He and his wife had several little children at home at the time. He asked us if he could borrow $10,000 in order to save his house from being foreclosed on. We certainly had the financial means to accommodate his request, and after some discussion we agreed to lend him the money.
He promised he would pay it back in full by making monthly payments. We didn’t charge any interest, and for the first few months, he made some minimal payments, but eventually he stopped. We kind of figured he didn’t have it, and we never really went after him.
After 15 years of not having much contact, he recently approached us again seeking financial help, this time for his wife’s medical bills. All their kids are out of the home, by the way.
So here’s our dilemma: The compassionate Christlike approach says we should help him and his wife out. The more rational side of us feels like the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me, twice shame on me.”
How should we handle this dilemma? We want to do the right thing, but we don’t want to just keep giving him money when he has not made any efforts to pay us back. Are we being selfish? Spiritually speaking, are we not told that if we have the means we should give to those in need? From your previous articles, we can see that you give pretty sound advice, so what do you recommend? To give or not to give?
You are right; this is a difficult situation. I can see the spiritual side of you wanting to help someone in need. On the other hand, you don’t want to be naïve and get taken advantage of.
Over time, you have been generous with your cousin and even magnanimous. When he stopped making payments, you and your husband made a choice not to go after him. It sounds like you didn’t even put any pressure on him to pay you back in full.
Most people in your position would have made numerous attempts to collect their money, which might have included going after him legally. To that extent, you have shown tremendous compassion to someone less fortunate, whose life circumstances brought him close to losing his home.
Because of your generosity, he and his wife were able to have some stability in staying and raising their children in the same home.
I’m a little troubled by the fact that he didn’t communicate with you for all these years, until he needed something from you again. Now, it’s entirely possible that he felt guilty for not being able to pay you back or was embarrassed, and that’s why he kept his distance. Another question I have for you is are his wife’s medical bills legitimate, or are they just a smokescreen to get more money out of you? As far as you know, has he done this to other family members or friends?
The answers to these questions might help you make a better decision.
Without any additional information, I see a couple of possible ways to resolve your dilemma.
One is to let him know that you would be glad to help him out with his wife’s medical bills, as soon as he pays you in full the money he owes you from 15 years ago. That would either put an end to him asking you or bring up the elephant in the room, which is what happened to his promise to pay you back in full?
It doesn’t sound like this discussion has ever taken place. It would be prudent to know where he’s been all these years and what his current circumstances are. Is he trustworthy or not? Whether you help him or not, it would be good to get this out in the open and get some answers.
If you choose the more spiritual approach of being “your cousin’s keeper,” I would not pay any money to him directly. I would ask to see the medical bills and have the financial contribution go directly to the doctors or hospital that he owes money to.
This way you are guaranteeing that the money goes to pay off the debts. If your cousin says that he needs to make the payments to those he owes money himself, then something is wrong with this picture.
If he agrees to have you pay the doctor bills directly, then most likely he’s an honest man who has had some tough breaks in his life. These are rough economic times for most people, and medical bills tend to overwhelm even hard-working and honest families.
On my office wall hangs a sign that says, “Blessed are those who give and forget, and blessed are those who receive and remember.” I love that saying because I have been blessed to be in a position to give to others, but I have also been in a position to receive help as well.
I will never forget those who have helped me along the way, but I really don’t like to keep track of how, when or to what degree I’ve helped others. In the end, we’re all beggars, and we’re all indebted to God.
As always, be prayerful with your husband as you consider your options, and be open to the Spirit. There might be other options that have not been addressed here.
May God bless you for your willingness to help someone in need — even if you have some initial doubts about it.
Dr. Elia Gourgouris is a nationally known speaker, relationship coach, and the president of LDSCoaching.com. With over 20 years of experience, he has inspired thousands of individuals and couples to find greater happiness and fulfillment, both in their careers and their personal lives. He holds a degree from UCLA and a Ph.D. in psychology. Dr. Gourgouris speaks to groups around the country regarding women’s issues, self esteem, communications skills, and relationships. He is also a favorite presenter at both BYU and BYU-ID Education Weeks, and Time Out for Women conferences. He is the author of “DTR: What You Need to Know Before You Get Married” and he has an upcoming CD entitled “The Multi-Platinum Marriage: Going from Just Surviving to Thriving!” He and his wife, Sona, live near Boulder, Colorado, with their children.