‘My Friend Is in Financial Trouble. How Should I Help Her?’

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One of my good friends is clearly in financial trouble. She lost her job a few months ago and told me that she had to liquidate her 401(k) to make her rent. She isn’t close with her family, so she can’t move back in with them or ask for help if she runs out of money. I don’t know the details of her finances, but I am worried about her.

This friend and I are both in our late 20s and have known each other since high school. We live in the same city, but our lives are pretty different. I have a stable, decent-paying job, live with my partner, and save regularly. Unlike her, I also don’t have student loans, which I know is also a huge privilege. She’s helped me through some really rough times in my own life and I want to be there for her. I just don’t know what to do.

It seems awkward to lend her money, but since I can afford to do so, should I offer anyway? If so, what do I say? I’m worried she might be offended. What else should I do?

I understand your instinct to offer money to your friend, but I think you’re getting ahead of yourself. Just because your friend needs money doesn’t mean she wants it from you (she might, of course, but you can’t assume that yet). Instead, this is a time to ask questions. “When people are in a tough spot, they often just need to be heard and acknowledged,” says Elana Feinsmith, a certified financial planner and financial therapist based in California. “That means really listening to what she’s going through, rather than rushing in to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to rescue you.’”

Money is a uniquely vulnerable topic, one that invites self-comparison and makes people deeply uncomfortable. Most of us aren’t socialized to discuss it, so we feel an intense urge to fix financial problems as quickly as possible (or blame others for them) and move on — nothing to see here, mind your own business! We also tend to tiptoe around it, wondering what other people might need rather than asking them outright. In your case, being a good friend might require you to examine some of your own unease around money and the inequities that it perpetuates. You’ve insinuated that you can’t exactly relate to your friend’s experience; that’s important to recognize, but it shouldn’t stop you from trying to understand how she feels.

When my friend Ellie (not her real name), 29, lost her job a few years ago — and with it, the health insurance she needs to manage her Type 1 diabetes — she noticed that some of her friends pulled away. “I think they didn’t know what to say to me,” she says. “I’d be like, ‘This is really fucking scary,’ and they’d be like, ‘So … you can’t come to brunch?’” Some of them gave her unsolicited financial advice or asked if she needed a loan, which made her feel even worse. “I wasn’t expecting them to do anything. I didn’t want a handout or a lecture. I wanted them to say, ‘Yeah, that is scary. I’m here to talk about it, or not talk about it if you don’t want to.’”

The friends who helped Ellie the most were the ones who didn’t make her feel like a charity case. “They knew I couldn’t afford to go to a movie or get drinks, but rather than not inviting me at all, they’d figure out a way to include me in some way,” she says. They’d come over to her apartment with dinner or a bottle of wine, or she’d meet them for a walk. “When you have no money, it’s really isolating,” she says. “I didn’t want my friends to cancel their plans and do nothing with me out of pity. But I did want to know they still loved me and wanted to hang out with me even though I couldn’t afford to pay for things.”

When I got laid off in my early 20s, one of my roommates came with me to a coffee shop and answered emails on her laptop while I applied for jobs on mine. I was comforted by her company; it made me feel like myself. Alone, I was unmoored, terrified I’d never find work again; with her, I had solidarity, structure, and someone to double-check my cover letters. It added a layer of normalcy to an otherwise unsettling and fearful time.

I suspect that this level of support (checking in, swinging by, bringing meals or groceries) is something you already know how to do. It’s the same stuff you’d do for a friend who’s in the dumps about anything else — hang out with them, distract them, buy them coffee. Don’t make it weird. This certainly won’t be the last time that someone close to you experiences financial hardship.

You can also advocate for your friend in larger settings, suggests Dr. Traci Williams, a psychologist and financial therapist based in Atlanta. “If your friend group is making plans, you could quietly suggest low- or no-cost options so that she can afford to join, or offer to cover her share of the cost if that’s within your means,” she says. (Obviously, don’t make a big deal out of this; people can smell performative goodwill a mile away.)

The next level of support — involving money or other tangible things — might feel more formal and awkward, so only proceed after you’ve laid the emotional groundwork. From there, make sure she’s on board with your help. “When one of my friends was going through a hard financial transition, I asked her to create an Amazon wish list that I could share with her loved ones,” says Dr. Williams. “It took some nudging, but she finally did it. It gave her agency over what to ask for, and it allowed us to contribute what we could.”

Finally, if your friend does ask you for money (or you still want to offer it), make sure that you only give what you’re comfortable never getting back, no strings attached. “One good litmus test is to ask yourself, if they didn’t pay back this money, would you resent them or judge them if you saw that they went on vacation next month?” says Feinsmith. Nothing will destroy a friendship quite like feeling owed or unappreciated.

“If you do offer money, it’s better if you can say it’s a gift,” says Dr. Williams. “Best-case scenario, she’ll repay you anyway because she wants to and she can. But if she doesn’t, you’re not going to feel put out about it.”

Email your money conundrums to mytwocents@nymag.com (and read our submission terms here).


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