A few months ago I wrote about why I cringe when someone’s financial pain goes viral. We love seeing someone in need get their needs met, but it often means we’re witnessing that “needy” person at their lowest, most painful, most vulnerable moment. We see their gratitude, but we forget it may come at the price of their dignity and humanity as their financial inadequacies are exposed.
So now that we’re aware of what we DON’T want to do, let’s personalize it– how CAN you help someone who is struggling financially without complicating your relationship with that person? How can you help them and still honor their dignity? I’ve got some Dos and Don’ts for you.
Give anonymously. I addressed this in my previous piece, but anonymous giving is the simplest way to help a friend in need without making things awkward. Send them an encouraging card with cash or a gift card in it. Slip a note in her purse, into her car, or leave groceries on her front porch. With online grocery ordering and delivery, this can be a really simple, practical way to be sure your friend isn’t going without, without causing tension in your friendship. You can also organize others to give anonymously– churches are uniquely suited to this task. If you coordinate with several families, your friend doesn’t know who gave what. That means she doesn’t need to struggle with feeling like she’s indebted to certain people.
Be clear about financial expectations when you’re going out. I have friends who like to have fun and I like to have fun with them, but I can’t always afford the same kind of fun they can. If you know your friend is struggling financially, but you want to include her in your fun, just make it clear to her what your expectations are. You may not realize the reason she’s turning down your dinner invitations isn’t because she doesn’t want to spend time with you, but because she can’t afford dinner out. You’ve got to decide if you want to scale things back so she can be involved, or if you want to make sure she knows she’s covered. Being low-key about this is an important component to not making things weird. It’s great if you can say, “Hey, I’d love to get together for a movie this weekend. My treat!” That way there’s no ambiguity.
Be casual about giving them things. I have a friend who will randomly give me groceries she got a really good deal on. She’ll stop by to chat and then hand me a grocery bag of randomness without much explanation. Friends pass us hand-me-down clothes and toys without fanfare or expectations. If you want to give your struggling friend something they need, just be cool about it.
Invite them over for dinner. This is the most covert way to take care of a friend’s financial need and have some relational time. You just paid for a meal for their family without it seeming like a big burden. You contributed to growing your relationship with them instead of making it feel more weird. Well done.
Think of ways to barter. Is there something your friend could do for you or help you with? Is there a way you could help her in return? Could she do some gardening work for you and you pay her with a casserole? This option has the most possibility for weirdness, but can work well if you have an actual need she can fill and you have something of value to offer her in exchange.
Don’t make a loan. I’m sure there are times where a loan is a smart idea, but it always complicates relationships. If your goal is to offer a little help, then just offer what you can without expecting repayment.
Don’t give with strings attached. A loan may have spelled out terms for repayment, but sometimes we give with strings attached that have nothing to do with financial repayment. Do you now expect this person to “owe you one” for whenever you decide to call in the favor? Do you need their emotional response to make you feel a certain way about your gift? Are you trying to buy their friendship or approval? This is a surefire way to make your friendship unbearably awkward. Give out of love, with open hands, expecting nothing in return.
Don’t give more than you should. You’ve got to know your limits because no one else will. If you want to take your friend out for dinner, but you don’t have the money to cover both your meals, don’t feel pressured to do it. Don’t make unwise financial decisions for your family based out of an admirable desire to help. You’re only going to end up resentful and with regrets, which will definitely complicate your relationship.
Don’t expect gratitude. Receiving help can be humbling. It can even be humiliating and feel shameful. It’s tough for those emotions to coexist with gratitude. When we help someone, we feel good. To be helped can feel like relief, but it can also feel like an announcement that you can’t be trusted to care for yourself. There’s gratitude mixed up in there, but sometimes it isn’t the first emotion to surface. If you can give to your friend, knowing this may be hard for them to accept, then you give them the freedom to feel what they feel without pressure. This is hugely helpful for your relationship.
I could tell you so many examples of ways people have helped our family when we had needs. They have become part of our family history, our legacy of support from people who care about us. It has turned our time of financial struggle into a time when we’ve become very aware of the love and care that surrounds us and have felt more part of a community than we did before. With thoughtful sensitivity from you, your struggling friends can feel that way, too.