Writer and broadcaster

My sister has run up too much debt. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My sister and partner are in their late 40s and have two children. They have run up appalling amounts of debt, which they are unable to manage. Three years ago, they moved to the Home Counties from London after a world tour that cost them far more than they had anticipated. They returned and bought a large house that they cannot afford – neither the mortgage nor the extensive renovation costs that my sister plans. Her partner, who is now refused any bank cards, has not worked since.

Both work in the media and because work is in intense, short bursts with lots of ready cash, that’s how they live and they don’t use their earnings to pay debts but to buy luxuries – dining out, designer clothes, lots of technology, which they feel they deserve after the waiting. They seem unable to understand that spending more than you earn has disastrous consequences and live only for the brief highs.

By contrast, my partner and I have staid, Paye jobs and my sister sees our lifestyle as boring and miserly. I can’t talk to my sister without appearing to preach but the situation is very serious; friends are calling in their loans, our elderly mother, who has already given them as much as she can afford, worries that she is under pressure to raise more. This week I have learned that my sister’s current, temporary employer is taking issue over some “borrowed” petty cash. Meanwhile, her partner is dithering at home, looking for that appealing job and their large house is falling apart. They are clearly incredibly stressed and argue a lot about money, which is difficult for the children, not least when they are whisked away from children’s clubs because the invoice can’t be paid. I need to try to help – but suggestions of debt counselling are met with derision.

It’s maddening to see people you care about make crazy decisions and it’s tempting to want to stop them. But there comes a point when you really have to ring-fence your own life or risk getting so over-involved that it starts to become your life.

I think it might help you to look at this practically: what can you do? When you step back and look at it the answer is: very little indeed. You can’t step into their life for them and take the reins. You have suggested debt counselling and they are not interested. So I think it might be time for you to adopt a more shrug-the-shoulders approach to your sister’s financial affairs. In Neapolitan we call this che bo’ fa? (a rhetorical “what can be done?”).

I’m all for family. I come from a large, incredibly involved, engaged one, but there does come a time when all practical advice has been ignored and offers of help deflected, when you have to say to yourself “this is not my problem”. Your sister has to work this one out for herself. Your mother, too, needs to let your sister stand on her own two feet and stop lending her money if it’s making her stressed.

It might be worth looking at roles within the family. Do you feel your mum/parents have always baled your sister out? Have you always been the one to look after your sister? I’m wondering how you know so much about her financial affairs. Does she tell you, expecting you to sort it out or because she might feel guilty for the life you describe or in some way want to show off? Or do you go looking for reasons to feel cross (superior?) to your sister about how she has screwed up again?

How do you know that the world tour cost them far more than they had anticipated, or that they cannot afford their house? Who gives you this information? Is it accurate?

There is an element of schadenfreude in your letter that is worth looking at. You are the sensible, “staid”, slightly “preachy” one but it has kept you safe and out of debt (to be applauded) and there’s your silly sister, who keeps spending beyond her means and has come a cropper in a way that seems no surprise to anyone. Who cast you in these roles? What is keeping you in them?

Hopefully your relationship with your sister is made up of more than what you both do for a living and how you spend your money. Is there no other common ground, nothing else that could bring you together?

You say you want to help, but maybe the help she needs and the help you want to give are two different things. Chew on this for a bit because the current situation sounds less than ideal – for both of you.

In case your sister changes her mind about the counselling, or for anyone else reading, the Money Advice Service has a list of organisations that can help with debt advice here: moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/articles/where-to-go-to-get-free-debt-advice.


This first appeared in Guardian Family on 14 March 2014.