This isn’t really a work problem, it is a life problem caused by success at work. I am the CEO of a respected company and have been successful beyond my wildest dreams. I was the first in my family to go to college, let alone get an advanced degree. I am incredibly persistent and have worked hard—but, to be fair, I have also been lucky.
My problem is that my success is visible, so my family members and friends constantly ask for financial support. I am a single mother of two kids. I pay for their secondary schooling and am trying to save for them to go to university as well as for my retirement. I already contribute to the school fees of all my nieces and nephews and pay rent for some of my aunts and uncles. Once I have paid my own bills and all the others, there isn’t much left for savings.
People see that I drive a good car and have nice clothes and they think I am made of money. My own assistant recently asked me to help with her mother’s medical care. People always say they will pay me back, and we all act as if the money is a loan, but I can’t see how anyone will ever be able to pay me back.
I know that the things people ask me to help with are legitimate. It isn’t that I feel taken advantage of—it is simply more than I can pay. I recently made a loan by putting something on a credit card, so now I am paying interest on that loan and I just hate it. I am really struggling with saying no.
Victim of My Success
Dear Victim of My Success,
This is such a classic conundrum. It makes it hard to enjoy your success when it puts you in such an uncomfortable position. I think you might be able to apply a couple of principles here that will help. You will have to gather your courage to be tough and firm, but it sounds like you are tired enough of the situation and are ready to do that. You aren’t going to like what I am going to say, but I am going to say it anyway.
Your suspicion that none of what you give away is truly a “loan” is dead right. Unless you have some kind of payment plan that you are willing to hold people to, you are really just giving money away. The way people who officially loan money (like banks or loan sharks) get unpaid loan money back most of the time is to seize assets or terrify people into compliance. Of course you are not going to do that.
So the first thing you need to do is change your language when you do offer help. Call it a gift. Then when people insist they will pay you back, you can say they are welcome to do that, but you don’t expect it. You never know, someone may repay your generosity when you need it most in the future. I call that pennies from heaven. But you must construct your financial life as if that will never happen. It takes a lot of pressure off the relationship. Everybody wins, you get your need to share and be generous met, and people get help when they need it.
Then, you need to clarify your own boundaries: how much money must you protect for yourself, your children, and the commitments you have already made? It is simply math. You know what comes in every month, and you know what goes out. With anything left over, you decide what goes into savings and what is left over to give away. You can literally build a giveaway fund—and when it is exhausted, that’s that. No more. The well is dry. Until you decide to replenish the fund.
And, unless you are committed to being in debt for anyone other than your children, such as to pay for education or co-sign a mortgage, I highly recommend that you first use the fund to pay off your credit card debt. I am no financial planner, but I know enough to know that credit card debt is brutal and is to be avoided at all costs.
This will be hard for you. You help people because their needs are legitimate, and you care for them. But legitimate need is infinite. It will never shrink. You will be on this vicious and exhausting cycle until you put a stop to it. No one can do it for you.
People will stop asking only when there is nothing—and I mean nothing—left to give. You really don’t want that. Sometimes people are victims of circumstances beyond their control. This is not the case for you.
You have choices here.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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