Brianna: How do I save a friend from a money mistake?
Spend less than you earn. Take advantage of your employer 401(k) match. Save a few months’ worth of expenses for emergencies. If you’re all about financial wellness, you may already live by these principles. You may also notice that people around you don’t.
I feel torn, for instance, when friends say they can’t afford their student loan bills, but shop with abandon anyway. Is it up to us personal finance buffs to give advice when friends make visible money mistakes? How do we do it without being offensive or annoying?
“The ‘helpers,’ if you will, often turn the help on like a giant fire hose,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in New York. “That very often ends up overwhelming and even shaming the person who has been struggling.”
And that can discourage open dialogue or a willingness to address money issues. These steps will help you share your wisdom with others while staying on speaking terms:
Step 1: Assess your relationship
A key consideration of whether to speak up is your relationship with the person in question: Is she a childhood friend or an acquaintance in your running group who happened to divulge her medical debt? The closer the relationship, the more it probably makes sense to assist, despite the risk of creating tension. Speaking up early may prevent the financial mistakes from getting worse, and you won’t find yourself years down the road explaining why you withheld helpful information. Let your friend know you’d be happy to talk through money concerns, if he or she is open to it.
But make sure the advice you plan to offer will, in fact, be helpful. Assess your own financial strength — your cash flow, credit score, debt, insurance coverage and savings — perhaps by taking an online financial health quiz .
Also, be careful about offering specific investment advice, says Eric Rosenberg, a personal finance blogger at Personal Profitability. Your friends could lose money — and blame you — if a stock you recommended loses value. You’re safer giving general advice, like suggesting they start saving for retirement as soon as possible or that they see a fee-only financial planner to develop a personalized action plan.
Step 2: Pick your battles
Rosenberg says he’s most inclined to jump in when he sees close friends making choices that have a long-term impact on their finances. Accruing massive high-interest credit card debt and not saving for retirement are some of the biggest red flags, he says. A friend who occasionally splurges, but doesn’t feel trapped by debt and is working toward long-term goals is less of a concern.
Step 3: Enable independence
Once you’ve decided to offer advice, it may be tempting to break out the charts and step-by-steps. But try to understand how your friend thinks and feels about money. Acknowledge how difficult it can be to achieve peak financial fitness, and that money management requires ongoing attention, even once you’ve got the basics down.
Consider helping friends build awareness of their finances, Clayman says. Suggest they take a weekly look at how much money they started with and how much they spent.
“That may be what it takes for the person to be able to organically help themselves,” Clayman says.
Perhaps they’ll see patterns of overspending or notice expenses they can cut. Offer to check in on the process, or to send encouraging emails or texts if that will motivate them.
Share your own goals, too, even if they’re not money-related. If your friend decides to save $1,000 for retirement by October, offer to set a goal of being able to run 7 miles by that time instead of your current 4, Clayman says. “That’s a great way of maintaining the equal balance in the friendship and also finding a way for you each to contribute something that helps both of you.”
Step 4: Take no for an answer
Your advice may fall flat. Some friends will decide they’d rather do their own thing, or that they’re uncomfortable talking about money altogether. Don’t push. Say you’re available if they have questions in the future, and that you only want to support them. That’s friendship 101.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email email@example.com . Twitter @briannamcscribe.