Dear Jeanne & Leonard:
I fear my son is leaving me holding the bag for his credit-card debt. Here’s the story: When “Noah” was a teenager, I opened an account for him at my credit union, an account on which I am a joint signatory. The account includes a credit card, which he used responsibly for a long time. But recently he’s used the card to run up over $1,000 in debt, and he gives no indication that he intends to repay it. (Noah’s 25 now and no longer lives at home.) The credit union says I can’t remove my name from the account unless I first pay off the debt, and that if I do so and then remove my name, it will have the effect of closing the account. This could cause problems for Noah, who may be, for example, using the account to pay regularly scheduled bills. What should I do?
— V.S., Silicon Valley
Run, don’t walk, to the credit union, pay off the debt and close the account.
We know: You don’t want to create problems for your son. But those problems pale in comparison to the one he’s in the process of creating for you — namely, being on the hook for his financial irresponsibility. So, first things first: Protect your own financial well-being, then figure out what to do about Noah’s.
Dear Jeanne & Leonard:
“Sara” is a mentally unstable, unemployed and unemployable woman who’s been living with her mother. I know her from a book group at the library, and I always try to be kind to her. Apparently because I’m sympathetic, Sara’s come to see me as a close friend.
Now here’s the problem: Sara’s mother recently died, and she’ll soon have nowhere to live. So she’s been hinting that she’d like me to take her in. I feel sorry for Sara and plan to give her some money. But there’s no way my husband and I could handle having her live with us; our marriage wouldn’t survive. But how do you tell someone she needs to go to a homeless shelter, when as far as she’s concerned, your house has more than enough room for one more?
— Sharon, Seattle
You don’t. Forget about telling Sara what she should do, and stick to telling her what you can’t do, which is invite her to live with you.
Rest assured, Sara realizes that, in wanting you to take her in, she’s looking for a huge favor, and she won’t be stunned when you say “no.” Still, to make the conversation go as smoothly as possible, be unequivocal when you turn her down, and don’t explain your reasons (doing so invites her to propose workarounds). Also, if the money you’re giving her is a one-time gift, make that clear.
Obviously, Sara’s in a rough spot. You are kind to want to help her, and you shouldn’t feel bad about deciding for yourself what form that help will take.
P.S.: It may be time to drop out of your book group.