Crucial Conversations QA

When Money Gets Between Family Members

Dear Joseph,

Four years ago, I gave my savings to my brother, so he could open a business. I was hesitant because he has a temper and communicating with him can be tricky, but I went ahead. My mother-in-law also invested. Recently, I wanted my brother to repay some of the money, but asking for money has become very uncomfortable. He would ask me to accept small payments, then would take forever to get them to me. So I lied and said my mother-in-law wanted some of her money back, knowing he would respond to her more quickly. I got caught in my lie. Now my brother refuses to speak to me. I have apologized for lying. But I also feel it’s not all my fault. I lied to get access to my own money because communicating with him is so hard. My brother has told me to “have a nice life.” I want a chance to explain why I lied. Now he won’t let me. What should I do?

Bad Debt

Dear Bad Debt,

You’ll want to sit down when you read this. I’m going to talk to you the same way I talk to myself: with a heart so full of love that I’m not going to hold back on what I think you need to hear.

The problem here is not your brother, it is you. And your path to progress is to simply accept the reality you’ve created. Here is the truth as I see it:

  1. You kissed your money goodbye when you gave it to your brother. You’re now blaming him for behaving in exactly the way you knew he would when you gave it to him.
  2. Yes, you read that right. I used the word “gave” not “lent.” You didn’t loan it, you gave it. Resentment is a sign you are not setting or maintaining boundaries. You knew before you handed over the cash that you should have a financial boundary with your brother. But you sold out. You knew he would try to manipulate you with his anger if you said no, so you gave in and loaned it to him anyway. Your resentment is guilt turned outward. It won’t get resolved when your brother repays you. It will get resolved when you listen to its message: you are responsible for saying no when you feel like saying no. And if you say yes anyway, you are responsible for the consequences.
  3. If he pays it back, it will be on his terms. Since you failed to set clear expectations when you handed over the money, you are at his mercy for how he chooses to repay it. If you are unwilling to talk to him to establish terms now, you surrender the right to feel resentful. It is pure self-deception to hold expectations that he did not agree to.
  4. Your lie is all your fault. It is not a shared transgression. It is a solitary one. You decided to deceptively hide behind your mother-in-law rather than speak your own truth. He has every right in the world to mistrust you now. Is it possible that he is using your lie to assuage his own guilt? Of course. But that doesn’t change the simple moral story: You lied. End of story. No justification. No turning it back on him. No mitigating circumstances. So give up hoping he will co-sign your rationalization.

If you want to get right with yourself and right with him, here’s the path forward. You have two conversations you need to have with your brother. You can do them at the same time—but be clear that they are separate issues. One does not soften or strengthen the other.

Conversation 1: I lied. “I’m sorry.” This one is short and sweet. “Brother, I was a coward. I was trying to get my money back from you and I lied because I didn’t have the courage to be direct. I don’t blame you for being angry at me about that and for not trusting me as a result. I hope one day to demonstrate that I am no longer that person and that I deserve to be trusted again.”

Conversation 2: What promise are you willing to make about repaying my money? “Do you agree you owe me the money? If so, what are you willing to commit about repayment? And what consequences are you willing to accept (e.g. late fees, etc.) if you don’t abide by those terms?”

Even if he agrees he owes the money and commits (in writing) to repayment terms and consequences for noncompliance, you should still heed my final advice: let it go. Chalk this up as a lesson learned: family and lending rarely mix. And they NEVER mix when the relationship is already unhealthy. His relationship with you may have been unhealthy, and yours with him definitely was.

If you’re truly daring, use this alternate Conversation 2: “I forgive you of the debt. I don’t want you to pay me back. I should not have loaned it. And I handled the process badly in many ways. That is my lesson to learn. If you choose to pay it back, give it to a charity not to me.”

Your money is gone. I hope you get your brother back.


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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

22 thoughts on “When Money Gets Between Family Members”

  1. I’m replying to the article about the brother who loaned the sibling some money. I have been in this situation. I heard a financial advisor on NPR say that if you are family and agree to “loan” money to another family member you should not be doing it. She said, that if you cannot afford to “give it” to them you should not be doing it. She also made the point that so many parents try to treat all children equally and not all children are equal. I had an older brother who was on the verge of homelessness and my parents bought a condo for him. Too many details to go into that story but they did what, I thought was right. Money is one of the toughest conversations!

  2. Every time I read Joseph’s advice I feel like I take a step forward in life. The best concept in this article: “If we feel resentment – it’s because WE didn’t establish boundaries” What a great life lesson – because it’s something WE can control.

  3. This was such a mature, right on answer and refreshing… This is so great! Thanks for the person who submitted the question and for your answer.

  4. This article I found to be very wise. I have been in this same situation. I also knew that when I loaned the money I probably would not get it back even though he promised he would have it to me within 2 weeks. I wanted to help him or he would have lost his home. I have never asked him for it and never will.

  5. The response is so powerful but i feel i am now missing a resource. “you are not setting or maintaining boundaries” I would love to know what Joseph recommends as a tool for helping identify and maintain personal and professional boundaries

  6. The fastest way to end a relationship or a friendship is to “loan” people money. If someone needs money to open a business they can apply for a loan through a bank or their local Small Business Administration. If someone needs money for personal reasons, that’s typically a clue they are lacking money management skills.

    I LOANED a friend money and we had a written agreement but other than making one payment, I never heard a word from him again.

    It NEVER ends well when money trades hands between family or friends.

    However, you can take that person to small claims court but you would have to show that this was a loan and not a gift.

  7. Great advice. I was in a similar situation, only the borrower lied about the reason (always an emergency) for needing it. Eventually I handled it as you suggest. I told her that I would never again lend her money and that I might pay the bill in question if she asked. She never has. My resentment is gone, and our relationship is so much better

  8. Is cosigning a loan similar? I have an adult son, now 32yo, who refuses to pay his college loans that I cosigned for him when he was 19 or 20. Our relationship is strained for other reasons, but his refusal to pay is putting me in a financial bind. This is not a $500 or $1000 loan, but rather thousands and thousands of dollars. I’m 60 now with retirement looming. The monthly payments I’m making on his student loans would look much better as retirement savings. What do I do?

    1. My brother-in-law asked us to co-sign a college loan for him and it’s something I thought would bring my wife and I too much risk if we had to help repay it. Instead I offered to give/loan him some to help lessen the amount he would need to borrow (the loan part to make him feel better about it if he was determined to pay us back). Fortunately, he was getting other pressure to ask us and understood why we said no.

      How to approach this will depend on a number of factors that you probably can’t go into here such as whether or not he has the ability to pay it back and won’t or isn’t in a place where he can. Talking with a financial advisor and/or a family counselor for advice where you can get into more details may be more productive.

  9. I’v been asked to lend money and my answer is always the same. I don’t have any extra to give, try a bank. It is your responsibility to set boundaries with people. If you don’t, then you have no one to blame but yourself if you are not happy with that person. Hard lesson to learn, but a necessity in life.

  10. the money wasn’t kissed goodbye because it was given but because bro behaved in a way to keep it. narcissist, sociopath, nicer moniker: i think this type of situation is just not suited for crucial conversations…

    so many unctuous presumptions go into designing the dialog, and in the end it’s essentially a power play on the brother’s part that invited one on the other’s part. conversations no longer carry the same meaning at that point; it’s a power struggle.

    nonetheless, if i was going to use words (civilly), i like joseph’s for the most part.

  11. You said nothing about person loaning the money being an enabler. My sister always wanted to “borrow” money when she got into a financial bind. Every time I “loaned” her money I was enabling her to continue to dig herself deeper into debt. I also learned that she would never learn financial responsibility as long as I continued to bail her out. It was a hard lesson to learn.

  12. I agree with all that you said except for the statement “I hope you get your brother back.” He never had his brother, or perhaps not for very many years. His brother made his choice about whether he wanted to be a brother when he took the money and never repaid any of it. Does he really need to invest a lot of emotional energy in a one-way relationship when there are so many wonderful people out there?

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