A few years ago, a friend announced she was ready to buy a home of her own. I was thrilled for her: Here was someone who'd worked hard her entire adult life, who'd saved diligently for her down payment and who was ready to cross a threshold of adulthood that few of my other friends had.
I oohed and aahed over the virtual tours of the condos she liked, admiring the sleek appliances and central air that so many rental properties in Boston lack. When her choices boiled down to two potential homes—the second floor of a triple-decker and a studio in a converted mill—she consulted me to go over a list of pros and cons for each space.
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I started asking about the HOA (homeowners association) fees, bypassing stuff like which neighborhood she liked best and which one was closest to our favorite bars. While the triple-decker was charming, it needed some work—and while the mill space was move-in ready, the fees were almost double that of the triple-decker, and for half the space.
"Do you feel confident in your ability to pay for renovations, without a credit card, if you go with option one?" I asked her. And just how far would her budget stretch to cover her living expenses if she chose option two?
I expected her to wax poetic about interest rates and discuss the state of her emergency savings. Instead my friend went radio silent, and shut me out completely. In fact, she never let me know which apartment she chose in the end. I didn't even hear from her at all until I received an invitation to her housewarming party to that oh-so-chic studio I'd questioned several months later.
Alas, my money meddling had struck again.
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When I Became Aware of My Meddling Ways
I can trace this problem back to when my sister was planning her wedding. I come from a family of opinionated people who aren’t afraid to tell each other when a shirt looks too snug or a new haircut isn’t the most flattering—and when my sister wanted moral support and sympathy while being barraged with unsolicited advice from my mother and her future mother-in-law, I tried to remain as practical as possible, and inadvertently left "us" and joined "them."
Specifically my betrayal concerned her four-figure floral arrangements that I suggested could be easily re-created from Trader Joe's' à la carte selections, by a willing volunteer or two. And asking aloud if the beautiful-but-pricey bridesmaid dresses she’d chosen could be worn again. A few emotionally-charged conversations later, I’d been reprimanded, apologized and was back in safe, sisterly harbor—with a stern reminder that picking up the tab wasn’t my job, and therefore it wasn’t my job to drop hints about where to save a few bucks.
According to Dr. Mara Wagner, professor of modern psychoanalysis at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, nosing into other people's business generally stems from something we're conflicted about in ourselves.
When the meddling turns to money matters, it can signal an issue we're having with our own finances, says Dr. Wagner. “It’s called projecting," she explains. "If you’re projecting something of yourself onto another person, what you’re really trying to do is change yourself from the outside in.”
Maybe we're having trouble saving for our own home, or maybe we've watched our credit card debt spiral out of control and feel helpless. “It doesn’t mean that what we identify in others isn’t totally inaccurate,” says Dr. Wagner. “But the fact that you’re pointing it out signals an impulse-control problem within yourself.”
I’d been laid off three months before my sister’s wedding, and was living in an apartment that, frankly, I couldn’t afford. Even though my other expenses were reasonable, I felt constantly strung out and worried about how I’d scrape enough money together to pay rent each month. And while I idealized a life of financial abundance, I had trouble instituting that idea in reality, instead allowing cash to melt away at bars, where I’d down cocktails I felt I needed to take the edge off. I had absolutely no business nosing into other people's financial matters—and yet, like a drug, I couldn’t resist.
How I Finally Got My Bad Habit in Check
In both cases, my intentions were good—but, on the other hand, meaning no harm to either my friend or my sister didn't mean my opinions were warranted or desired. In fact, when plans with my apartment-buying friend started to dry up, it hurt—and I knew, in turn, that my meddling had hurt her.
“Experiencing a withdrawal of friendship is a sign that money meddling has gone too far,” says Dr. Wagner. “But recognizing we've crossed the line starts with ourselves.” In other words, even if a friend is lamenting her lack of savings while signing the lease on a new Audi, it's not our duty to police her behavior. We very well might be right—she won't build her savings while throwing money around—but, so what? The buck stops there.
Curbing meddling (or noxious behavior of any kind), she explained to me, starts with self-reflection. And that meant taking a sort of personal time-out whenever I was tempted to offer a pointer that a friend might want to behave, well, differently than she was.
"Inhibiting these impulses will eventually become habit," Dr. Wagner told me. “It starts with identifying the bad behavior we want to change,” she said. “When we start recognizing those impulses, they become easier to control; eventually, thanks to self-reflection, how we react to certain triggers becomes habit—and we can strengthen our interpersonal relationships in the process.”
Ironically, it seemed, being less of a money meddler was about increasing my awareness—not just of other people's feelings, but of my own.
So that's exactly what I did. When I felt compelled to offer my two cents on a friend's $200 tax refund—“Put it into emergency savings! Pay down a credit card bill!” I wanted to cry out—I instead considered what I'd do if I came into a financial windfall.
Another friend who’d seen her living expenses nearly double after the birth of her first child mentioned her plans to have a second after her daughter turned one; this time I gave her a hug, instead of a hint about looking into a tuition savings plan.
And when a friend's well-meaning aunt recently inquired about just what kind of living a freelance writer could make these days, and bluntly asked what I might make writing an article like this, I—recognizing a fellow money meddler in action—counted to three, smiled politely and told her simply, "Enough."