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How to stop being the family ATM

If you're a

If you're a "financial enabler," you may have some hard decisions to make. Credit: iStock

If you want someone to stop asking you for money, the worst thing you can do is say no and then give in after persistent pleading.

Such “intermittent reinforcement” — granting a reward after an unpredictable number of requests — makes it more likely the person will ask for another handout than if you just said yes at the start, says Brad Klontz, a certified financial planner and psychologist in Lihue, Hawaii, who researches financial psychology. It’s the same dynamic that lures people to slot machines and lotteries.

Klontz doesn’t actually advise giving in. But he says understanding the psychology on both sides of what he calls “financial enabling” can help people change their behavior.

Financial enabling means giving money in ways that keep the recipients from taking responsibility and solving their own problems. It may include providing financial support to an able-bodied person who refuses to work, bailing a chronic debtor out of another financial jam or serving as a de facto emergency fund for someone who refuses to save.

The best way to stop enabling is to first recognize when you’re doing it and then create a plan for saying no.

  • They’re your kids — and adults

Financial enabling seems most common between parents and their adult children. It can be especially problematic for retirees who may run short of money because of their generosity.

Enablers often don’t see that their generosity fuels dependency and takes away motivation for the recipients to support themselves.

  • Before you say yes

Telling enablers to just say no doesn’t work, since few are willing to stop the behavior cold turkey, therapists and planners say. Instead, enablers should ask themselves the following questions:

—Will this money actually help? It’s one thing to aid someone who’s been financially responsible but has fallen on hard times. It’s another to give money to people who chronically overspend or under-earn.

—Is there a better way to help? Instead of handing over cash, the rescuer could offer to pay essential expenses such as rent or medical bills if they can afford to do so. Any financial help should come with a firm deadline of when the assistance will end, such as six months. Offering to find or pay for financial planning, therapy or coaching is another way to help without enabling.

When parents refuse or cut off adult children from financial support, the enabled may throw “adult temper tantrums” that can include guilt trips, vows to move across the country with the grandchildren, verbal abuse or even threats of physical violence. Enablers who worry about their safety should contact an attorney or law enforcement for help.

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