Why it’s better to be blunt with people struggling financially

Compassion can easily turn into a trap that keeps debtors dependent on others

A young couple of man and woman swear at home.
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My cousin, who is 27, broke his leg two years ago. The car accident was not his fault. His thigh bone snapped in half and he was in traction for a while. After he got out of hospital, he moved in with his parents so they could help him recover.

The problem was that they were too kind to him. When he complained about how painful physical therapy was, his parents let him skip the treatment. When he said he couldn’t get up to take food from the kitchen, they brought it to him instead. They wanted to make his life as comfortable as possible and avoid pain.

Two years later, because my cousin never went back to physical therapy or pushed himself, he can barely walk today, even with a cane. The doctors are worried that he won’t be able to walk properly ever again.

His family has decided that he doesn’t need to look for work and can just live with them instead, not paying rent. There’s no end to their generosity. My cousin has put on weight and he’s starting to develop other physical and mental health issues.

While compassion can come from a good emotional place – a desire to care for others, ease their burdens and empathise with their difficult situation – it can easily turn into a trap that keeps others mired in dependence. Often times, compassion can be an excuse to avoid difficult discussions.

It can be emotionally easier to be compassionate rather than care for what is best for another person. It’s easier to say, “You’ve had it tough, you don’t have any responsibility for your situation or resolving it” than “Life has kicked you around, but you need to take responsibility for solving the problem and overcoming this difficult situation”.

I see this argument used often, particularly in discussions about personal finance. Being kind and caring towards people in bad financial situations doesn’t really help them get out of their plight, no matter who is responsible for it.

Often times, compassion can be an excuse to avoid difficult discussions

If you’re in a tough spot, say you lost your job, your industry was affected by Covid-19 or your family has always been poor, don’t listen to the compassionate voices. They’re not going to help you beyond making you feel warm and fuzzy, which is very pleasant, but changes nothing.

Instead, listen to the advice that makes you feel defensive. When you want to lash out at the person offering such advice, understand that the anger comes because you know you could be doing something different.

Don’t act on every piece of advice that makes you angry. But at least start to look at it with a critical eye instead of dismissing it because it makes you feel bad.

Don’t be like my cousin. If his parents had made him do the tough things, he would be fine now, instead of facing years of mobility issues and increasing dependence.

Find those who make you feel defensive. See if they have ideas that can get you to take action to improve your life, even if it means you have to work hard for a while.

Schoolteacher Zach Holz (@HappiestTeach) documents his journey towards financial independence on his personal finance blog The Happiest Teacher