#10: Love, Free and Clear

Dear Ellie,

I am in trouble. Well, my son is in trouble, but I’m afraid it’s all my fault. He is twenty-two years old and still lives at home. For the past few years, he’s bounced from job to job looking for a career that he enjoys. He only attended two semesters of college and has no plans to return. 

His father and I have done all we can to raise our son to be a good man. He has a good heart, but he makes really bad decisions. From the women he dates to the friends he spends his time with, it seems like he doesn’t value decent people. I know that the old saying is true, that you are the company you keep. If my son doesn’t start making better relationship choices, he probably won’t amount to much.

All of that is tough for me, but here’s the real trouble: our son is ruining us financially. While he does have a job, he spends his money wastefully. He doesn’t really have many financial responsibilities, and he has amassed a significant amount of debt for someone so young. He spends his money on toys and hobbies instead of things that he needs.

Just over the past six months, my husband and I have spent over $7,000 bailing our son out of financial blunders. We make a modest living and have a younger son who will be heading to college next year. We are also planning for retirement and have dreams of traveling more later in life. But if we don’t change our habits, none of that will be possible because we’ll be flat broke. 

My husband and I fight over this issue more than anything else in our marriage. He tells me that our son needs to be more independent, and I know that’s true. But how do I stop helping him? It feels like the right, loving thing to do as his mother but my help doesn’t seem to do any good. 

Ellie, how do I get myself and my son out of this mess?

Signed,

Going Broke


Dear Going Broke,

I got married when I was twenty-one. My first husband and I were young and dumb and had very little financial sense. Neither one of us had yet graduated from college, so we were working minimum-wage jobs and trying to make ends meet while also putting ourselves through school. I remember not being able to sleep at night because of the heavy weight I felt in my chest over our finances.

Looking back on that time in my life, I feel a weird mix of nausea and gratitude. Because while it was truly one of the darkest seasons – and one that would go on for about six more years – I am grateful for all of the lessons I learned along the way.

In order to be a great parent, you must be willing to do difficult things to help your children grow.

Going Broke, my mama heart goes out to you. I know how hard it is to watch your child make poor choices and feel helpless to fix the mess that is their life. I can tell that you want good things for your children. That is admirable and beautiful. But wanting good things for your children is not enough. In order to be a great parent, you must be willing to do difficult things to help your children grow.

A couple of years ago, my sons Chapman and Luke got into a bad habit of leaving their bicycles on our front porch. I reminded them several times to put them safely away in the backyard, but day after day, the bicycles would stay on the front porch. Until one day when we arrived home from school, there was just one because someone had stolen Luke’s bicycle. There were tears and anger and frustration. But that experience offered an opportunity for my son to experience a natural consequence of his choices.

His choice? Not to put away his bike. The natural consequence? Someone took it.

I didn’t take his bicycle or ground him from using it. I simply let the situation play out. And most importantly, I didn’t go buy him another bicycle when his was stolen. I wanted to bawl my head off when Luke didn’t have a bike to ride with his brother in the afternoons after school. Everything in me wanted to buy him another one. But if I did that, I would be robbing him of the opportunity to learn an important lesson about being responsible and taking care of his possessions.

When you bail your son out of his financial mistakes, you are doing the same thing. I know it feels loving to give your child money to take care of problems, but when you do that, you are robbing him of the value that comes from experiencing consequences in life.

Right now, your son is not having to face the consequences of decisions he has made. He is spending money irresponsibly and you and your husband are picking up the tab. By doing that, you are teaching your son that someone else will pay for his mistakes. You are teaching him that his financial decisions don’t really impact his life. I know that helping your son out of his problems feels like the right and loving thing to do, but really, it’s crippling him.

I encourage you to think through why you have chosen not to listen to your husband on this issue. You’ve admitted that he is right, that your son needs to develop a stronger sense of independence. So why haven’t you stopped helping him? If you answer that question honestly, I think you’ll be able to trace your answer, no matter what it is, back to one thing: fear.

Maybe you’re afraid that your son will be mad at you when you don’t pay for his mistakes. Or maybe you’re afraid that he will suffer. I’m not sure exactly what that crippling fear looks like for you, but it’s underlying your choices right now.

When I was your son’s age and making bad financial choices, the thing I needed most was to suffer a little bit. I will never forget hearing the sound of the electricity in our apartment being disconnected. We were several weeks late on our payment, and it was summer in the Mississippi Delta. Within hours, I could hear food in our freezer defrosting.

Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop. To me, it sounded like our money and our future melting away. I was terrified, honestly, but that fear lit a fire inside me to do things better. I started budgeting our finances and we tried to make more intentional financial decisions.

When my first marriage ended, I was finally financially independent. And within a year of our divorce being finalized, I had saved enough to buy my first car and purchase a home for our little family of three. If my parents had bailed me out of all my financial mistakes as a young adult, I wouldn’t have had the gumption or the perseverance to accomplish those important goals for myself.

If I were you, the first thing I would do is talk to my husband. Be honest with him about the fears you have about your son and your financial future. Once you two are on the same page, you will both be able to set healthy boundaries with your child so that he will develop financial responsibility and independence.

You cannot use money or any other incentive to coax love or devotion out of your son.

As you do this hard but important work, one truth you must hold tightly to your chest is this: you cannot use money or any other incentive to coax love or devotion out of your son. In her book Tiny, Beautiful Things, my favorite author Cheryl Strayed says, “You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

Going Broke, you have a chance to model for your son what it means to truly love someone. Love is not a happy-clappy, warm and fuzzy feeling. Love is action. It involves saying true things, setting boundaries, and teaching people how to treat you.

Speaking from personal experience, I know that the relationship between a mother and her son is really special. Of all the women in the world, you are the one he probably trusts most. Setting boundaries (particularly with children in your son’s phase of life) can be really hard work. But I promise you that the work is worth it. The relationship that you both share will be deeper and more meaningful than ever on the other side.

Love is not a happy-clappy, warm and fuzzy feeling. Love is action.

I want you to know that I am rooting for you, my dear. I have watched people I love tremendously struggle in situations very similar to yours. Some of them have been willing to do the difficult work of setting boundaries and creating a healthy family dynamic, and it has changed their lives in innumerable ways. And some of them are still crippled by fear, using money and other things to manipulate and control the people they are supposed to guide and protect.

The love you have for your son shines through so clearly. I know deep in my mama soul that you have the strength to right this ship. I hope you know that, too.

Truly yours,

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