One night, Sarah, a veterinarian in her thirties, was having dinner with Laura, a close friend since high school.
Laura had struggled with overspending for as long as her friend could remember. In fact, Sarah once had to give her a last-minute loan to help out with a down payment on an apartment. But now, freshly married with a new massive mortgage, Laura was landing in trouble again.
As her friend rattled off her list of home renovations and electronics she'd impulse-bought—like a new, bigger flat-screen TV—Sarah began to get the sinking feeling that Laura's mounting credit card debt would soon catch up to her, and she knew from previous talks that she wasn't saving for retirement. Not a penny.
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"If I'm not going to say it, no one will," she thought. The two were that close.
And, as it became clearer and clearer that Laura might once again be digging herself into a hole she couldn't get out of, Sarah couldn't bite her tongue any longer. Finally, she said: "Is saving for retirement on your radar anywhere?"
While your conversation might go a bit differently, not knowing what to say when it comes to friends and their finances is fairly common. The subjects we tend to skirt with acquaintances—religion, politics, sex—are often free rein in close friendships. Yet discussing money can sometimes be a whole different ball game.
If someone we care about is sinking into credit card debt, or making poor financial plans for the future, we may be tempted to step in. But is money a subject we should simply leave alone?
“It’s tricky to know when and how to intervene,” says Dr. Irene Levine, a professor of psychiatry at New York University and author of "Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend." “But when a close friend is undermining her own success with a pattern of poor financial decisions, you would want to let the person know,” says Levine. “This is no different than helping a friend face a problem with drugs or alcohol.”
We spoke to money and etiquette experts to find out how to balance that fine line between offering support—and wrecking a long-time friendship.
1. First, Tread Carefully
Solomon recommends prefacing any conversation with honesty: Start by saying, “This is really awkward and difficult for me to talk about,” she says. Let them know that this is a tough subject for both of you, and your friend won't feel put on the spot.
It’s also important to give your friend permission to stop the conversation at any time. Though it depends on the person, there might be some areas where you simply decide not to go there. Discussing a friend’s salary, for example, or a case where a friend loses a job and clearly knows money is tight, might be times to hold back.
Ask yourself if you are even capable of bringing up money without sounding judgmental. “Some people just have the right body language and tone of voice. They can say things and it sounds helpful,” says Solomon. “Other people can say the exact same thing and it comes off as scolding and acting like a disappointed parent.” If you’re in the latter group, accept that perhaps you’re not the one to intervene.
2. Choose Your Moment
Often, money can come up organically in a conversation. A friend might mention he's splurged on another new gadget he didn’t have the funds for, or joke about the single digits in her savings account. Decide if this is the right time to jump in, Levine says. A lighthearted comment could be a good segue to a more serious discussion ... then again, a lecture out of nowhere could be a perfect recipe for ruining brunch.
In terms of when not to speak up, here's a good rule of thumb: Solomon advises using the acronym “HALT” to evaluate whether the setting’s right for such a touchy topic: “Never try to have a conversation when someone is Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired," she says. Instead, she advises, pick a time when you're both relaxed.
3. Frame the Conversation Positively
Sindy Martin, a business etiquette consultant, had a close friend with a bad habit of borrowing from family and friends—and never repaying her debts. At lunch one day, Martin says she used the classic “sandwich approach” to address the situation: First she chose a positive, like her friend's career success, then she addressed her concern (not paying back money borrowed), bookended with another positive—her friend's great reputation in the community. “I never used the word ‘you,’ ” she said. “I approached everything from the ‘I feel’ perspective.”
You might also start by sharing a story of how you yourself solved a money issue in the past. It’s easy to get preachy, but if you first recognize that no one is perfect with money, you can make the topic more of a mutual discussion than a nagging lecture, says Solomon.
Overall, make sure the chat focuses on what could be possible. If a friend mentions she's having budgeting trouble, offer a larger, positive goal instead of chiding her about mistakes. For example, you might say, “Let’s figure out a budget that works so you can save up for that trip to Italy you always wanted to take."
4. Recommend an Expert
Letting an expert get down to the nitty-gritty can be a good way to keep the situation neutral. Say: “I just met with John Smith at ABC Company who did an amazing job helping me plan for retirement. If you ever need someone to help, I could pass along his number.” Or, if a certain book inspired you, order it and have it mailed to a friend.
Martin wound up recommending a financial advisor to her frequent-borrower friend, who was then able to set up a budget that didn't rely on plying family members for cash.
In the case of her old friend the over-spender, Sarah chose to subtly email her a story she'd seen about saving for retirement. “It was more constructive because it was an article, like ‘Hey, check this out!’” she says, and let a third party handle the touchy specifics. Laura appreciated the gentle wake-up call, and later upped the contribution amount to her 401(k).
5. Offer Help, Without Offering Cash
If a friend is seriously struggling, you might feel compelled to pitch in financially, assume control of the situation—or both. But is it a good idea?
Jeffrey, 25, a financial analyst, knew his roommate was falling into deep credit card debt, and chose to get involved. He paid off his friend's balance to give him a fresh start, brought out scissors to cut up his cards and created a spreadsheet of his payments for him. But, lo and behold, a few days later, shiny new cards began arriving at the apartment. Within a year, the balance was back up to where it first was. And the friendship was strained.
“I’m the type of person who needs to intervene,” he says in his defense. Yet most experts say that digging into your own savings to lend a hand can often do more harm than good.
“Most money problems don’t come from lack of money, but from the inability to handle money and make wise money choices,” says Constance Hoffman, an etiquette coach and founder of Social & Business Graces. “Until the issues are addressed, no amount of money will help.”
Instead, support—and delicate advice-giving—can be more helpful in solving the deeper issue. “You never know how someone is going to react when it comes to talking about money,” says Solomon. But if you can make finances a low-key topic, an 'intervention' doesn’t have to be an intimidating lecture. If approached correctly, it might even strengthen a friendship.