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What to do when your friend is broke and constantly asks for help

As a clinician specializing in financial behavior, Amanda helps people live empowered, engaged, and educated financial lives.

How far should you go to support someone who can't seem to manage her own life? Check out this question that I get all the time.

I have a good friend who is in bad financial shape, and it's affecting our friendship. Last year she and her husband decided to declare bankruptcy for, I hate to say it, careless spending that they let go on for way too long. They now live paycheck to paycheck with no credit card, and yet they still make a lot of spending decisions that I think are reckless.

Even so, I try to keep my mouth shut because that's her business. The thing I have a harder time with, though, is that she keeps using me as her free babysitter because she says she doesn't have money to pay someone. Now she's asked if I can keep her daughter on the same night as my daughter's birthday sleepover so that she and her husband can go to an out-of-town party (where they found the money for a hotel, meals and gas, I don't know). Our daughters don't get along so well, and I worry this might ruin my child's birthday. But I also worry that if I say no my friend will add me to the long list of injustices she feels the world has perpetrated against her. She has been one of my closest friends for a long time. Is there a way I can keep her financial situation out of our relationship so we can be friends the way we used to be?

-Lynn, the free babysitter

Dear Lynn,

I don't think your question of how to keep her financial situation from impacting your friendship is really what this is about. You've already found a solution to that part: just hold your tongue. Her choices may not be the same as what you think you'd do in her shoes, nevertheless you understand that it's her life to do with as she pleases.

The bigger question is how do you keep her financial choices from impacting your life? Helping your friend is one thing, subsidizing her with your free babysitting labor is another. It sounds like you've been feeling taken advantage of for awhile, but it wasn't until she showed insensitivity to your daughter that she crossed a boundary.

Stable friendships depend on good boundaries. We generally like people whose boundaries are similar to ours, and reflect our own expectations around fairness, support and reciprocity.

The connection you draw between your friend's chronic overspending and her tendency to take advantage of others suggests that she has poor boundaries. When she reaches the end of her money (a boundary), she doesn't stop, she keeps right on spending. When she reaches the point in the friendship where help is mutual and equal, she doesn't stop, she keeps right on asking you to pitch in and watch her daughter.

Can you still be friends with someone who has poor boundaries? Possibly, but it's a lot of work. You have to be honest and consistent with her about what's acceptable to you, even when that conversation is uncomfortable.

Chances are, if you try to establish a healthy boundary she might drift away from you. She might be one of those people who needs outside support (from people and/or creditors) in order to function, and so she will move on to someone else who doesn't see the pattern and agrees that she's been the victim of a "long list of injustices." If that's the case, then I will pose the question to you: What do you get out of continuing a friendship with her?

Image: Ed Yourdon/Flickr
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