I am a 30-year-old who has built a stable and happy life after growing up in a family that was often unstable emotionally and financially. I love them, but as I become more successful, my family needs more and more of my support.
My sister and her son moved into my father’s one-bedroom apartment in July, which is against the lease. I was very against this living situation because it’s way too small for two adults and a rambunctious child. My sister said she had no other options because she has terrible credit, little savings and an eviction. She was laid off for not having child care and is collecting unemployment. My father was struggling to pay for his apartment, as well.
Their relationship has deteriorated. I don’t think they can continue living together. My aunt co-signed for my father’s apartment and says my father can stay in her spare bedroom if he works with her to fix his finances. My aunt has been trying to help me, as she knows I am overwhelmed mediating their arguments and finances.
I told my sister we will need to find another place for her to live after April, and that I would co-sign if she sat down with me to go over her finances. She cried and said it would be impossible to find a place being unemployed, and that no one cares about her ending up homeless.
She said she will refuse to leave the apartment if management doesn’t let her take over the lease. She believes that since she is a single mother with a child, they won’t be able to evict her. I’ve explained there could be negative consequences on her tenant record and for my aunt since she’s the co-signer, but my sister says everything will be fine.
I don’t want to hold my sister’s past mistakes against her, and COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted single mothers. She has been better with her money the last three months, but she has been very irresponsible in the past. (Example: paying for breast implants.) She can’t stay with me because I’m a head of house in my alma mater’s dorm, which grants me and my partner a free apartment.
How should I proceed with my sister? Am I being too supportive, or not supportive enough? I feel guilty even having my own financial goals when my family is struggling.
When someone tells you they’re about to behave terribly, listen. I don’t care if your sister has been more responsible for three months. She obviously doesn’t plan to be responsible moving forward. She’s also made it clear that she’s up for a fight. Please don’t co-sign for her and let her take down your credit in the process.
This is a problem between your sister, your dad and your aunt. I certainly feel for your aunt. I get that you’re both trying to help each other work through this mess. But you’re both ascribing magical thinking to your fix-it powers for your dad’s and sister’s financial messes. Nothing in your letter suggests that either one is interested in help.
If I were your aunt, I’d talk to an attorney who specializes in tenant law ASAP. You can suggest she do so. You also need to tell your sister you’re no longer in a position to co-sign. She’s going to cry and scream about how you’re ruining her life. Tell her by phone so you can hang up if things get out of hand.
The beauty here is that your living situation legitimately gives you a reason your sister and nephew can’t move in. I’d urge you to hang onto this arrangement as long as you can so you can develop firm boundaries. It’s OK to use dorm rules as an excuse while you get comfortable making it clear that you’re done bailing out your family.
Your signature probably isn’t the only thing standing between your sister and homelessness. Maybe she’s eligible for public housing, or she has friends who will let her couch surf. I’m not going to waste any energy exploring these options, though, because this is not your problem.
But here’s the trade-off: You don’t get to have an opinion even if you’re “very against” whatever living situation your sister comes up with. The second you weigh in, you’re throwing your sister a lasso. Don’t allow her to drag you back in.
This may seem like a money problem, but deep down it isn’t. Yes, life would be easier if you could buy your dad and your sister separate homes on opposite sides of town. But I suspect they’d still leave you emotionally drained. Emotional vampires always do.
Your financial goals are completely unrelated to your family’s struggles. The sooner you can separate the two, the better off you’ll be. Please don’t feel guilty for using your money to make good decisions for yourself instead of enabling your family’s bad ones.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].