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A Father & Daughter Talk Money

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Personal finance writer Meghan Nesmith teams up with her dad to answer readers’ tough money questions. In this installment, Meghan and her dad examine the tricky issue of money, family and becoming a financial adult.

Dear Meghan and her dad,

I’m not sure how to ask this question or how one would even begin to answer it because, like all things having to do with family and money, it’s complicated.

For quite a while now, I have been financially tied to my father. Initially, the money provided me with wonderful things like pay for me to travel abroad and pay for my education and help me with a down payment on my house and get me a job. But, in my late twenties, I started to feel the burden of this support. Because the thing is, I’m poor. Like really, really poor. Like graduate student poor. I do not make enough to support myself financially ($15,000 a year from a graduate teaching assistantship stipend plus a little extra from babysitting), so it’s nearly impossible for me to face down the barrel of poverty when I have such a generous support system in place. For instance, it’s hard to turn down a free new car when the other option is to quit my part-time babysitting work because it often involves being a chauffeur to children and take the bus to school and never see my boyfriend because he lives two hours away. It’s also hard to turn down rent and a cellphone and health insurance when, without my father’s help, I wouldn’t be able to afford these. But, man, do I want to! Because for the past few years I have felt like my father holds his support over my head, intertwining himself so thoroughly in my life so that I need to need him, you know? When I challenge him or when we fight in any way, he often reminds me of how much he is doing for me and has even threatened to withdraw his support. But here’s the other sticking point: There was a year or two where I was completely detached from my father financially, and in that year we spoke only a handful of times. Despite my frequent reminders that I would love to hear from him more often, that I would love for him to visit, we went months without speaking. Clearly, whether it is intentional or not, whether it is malicious or not, money has come to be the thing that connects my father and me. Or, rather, the thing that has kept me tethered to him.

So I guess what I’m wondering is this: How do I grow a financial backbone in the face of such generosity and how do I do this while maintaining a strong relationship with my father?


Meghan’s Dad Says:

Dear Unmoored,

Hold on. When I signed up for this I was told there would only be financial questions where opinions would be offered by two hapless know-it-alls to writers and readers, all of whom realized that opinions were worth exactly what they had paid for them. Nowhere in my contract does it say that I will face questions about family/love/relationships clothed in a light pretense of money. But at least Unmoored seems to recognize this.

Before I take on the guts of this question (I should point out that by training, I am a lawyer and, therefore, capable of offering opinions on anything, regardless of lack of knowledge, skill or fact — a dear friend refers to me as the master of the fact-free argument) let me make some general comments on giving and receiving. They aren’t as easy as they should be.

I have been the beneficiary of much generosity in my time. Little has come in the way of big chunks of money, but I have received many gifts and, more important, many opportunities that were not offered to others, and for all of that I am grateful. I’m not sure how I would react to a large gift of money. I think I understand that can be hard. For example, if my in-laws had ever offered to provide a down payment on a house, I don’t know how I would react. I think it would bother me. Yet if it was my parents that made the offer, I think I would view it differently. I always hope that on those occasions where I offer gifts to people, they will be accepted and appreciated and that the recipients will feel better knowing that someone wants to make a gift to them. But it is complicated. And further complicated by family.

Back to it. You say you are poor, but clearly you are not — you are a child of privilege, relatively speaking. Your “graduate student” comment gives you away. You may not have the income you currently want, but you are far from poor. Your relationship with your dad isn’t as healthy as it should be (as if you needed someone to tell you that). I’m sorry: You are a grown-up (and, for that matter, so is he). Fix it, if you want to. You didn’t pick your parents, just like they didn’t pick you. But they have responsibilities to discharge for bringing you into this world. Support to a certain stage is arguably one of those. You are past that certain stage. If your father chooses to support you, he should expect nothing in return. If you choose to accept the support, you should do so with the knowledge that although he shouldn’t expect anything, he will.

And in the meantime, talk to a real professional who can help you sort out your relationship. Time is short.

Meghan Says:

It’s funny — I read my dad’s answer before I wrote mine, something I try not to do. But I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know how he would respond to this, as a father; what chord it would strike in him. This letter made me confused, and it made my heart ache, and as I often do with a confused, aching heart, I turned to my dad.

He’s using tough love here. I can feel him bashing his bad knees against it as he aims for levity, irreverence. It must be hard to tell another father how to love better. To tell another daughter how to forgive.

Not that I could have written such a letter as yours, Unmoored (duh, my dad is perfect). But I have spent many years trying to reconcile my need for financial independence with the willingness of my parents to provide for me. I, too, felt the burden of “But life doesn’t have to be this hard!” coupled with “But why can’t I do this on my own?” The super-neat thing was that almost as soon as I became secure (after grad school), I realized that my persistent rejection of their gifts was basically like telling them, “Hey, all those drone-like years you spent behind your desk to provide me with this check so that I might pay off my credit card bill? Pfffft. I spit on you, and them, and all the pointless days.” What a waste of energy. And what a waste of time, of time — all too short, their graying hair, their quieting bodies.

I’m not saying our situations are the same. They quite clearly aren’t, what with the way your father holds his support rather viciously over your head. But I’m going to ask a question back at you: Is it possible the only way your dad knows how to show love is through financial support? Is that how he was taught? We can NEVER KNOW what goes on inside the mind of another, no matter how much shared physical business pumps through our common hearts. Your dad’s willing wallet might be the largest expression of his heart. Your completely understandable desire for more might seem to him like the cruelest repudiation of love. It’s impossible to know.

So let’s just take the money out of it. What I think you’re saying is that your dad does not love you the way you want to be loved by him. And your dad should have learned better how to love you. That’s his job, as a dad. It doesn’t sound like he’s done very good job of it. Many don’t. Many do much, much worse. That doesn’t mean you should stop feeling hurt by his failing — you shouldn’t! That’s your job, as his kid. But I’m not sure any of us have the luxury of dwelling there any longer. So here it is: You know what I would do? I would give your dad this letter, or a version of it. I would tell him that you love him, and you know he loves you, and you’re hoping you can learn to love each other better. Maybe that love comes with a new car; maybe not. But either way, it should come with as much honesty and awareness as you can muster as you navigate the immense complexities of family. It might not work. He might not be able to learn. Then it will be up to you to decide how much you can let that affect you (a decision that will become financially easier and easier as the years go by). But you will know that you have done what is within your power to create the relationship you both want and deserve. That is all that any of us are capable of, responsible for. Our own tender hearts, and what we choose to do with them.

Do you have a really, really easy question? Great. Email meghanandherdad@gmail.com. We need a gimme. 

This post originally appeared on TheBillfold as an advice column is co-written by Meghan Nesmith and her father, who prefers to be known online as “Meghan’s dad.”

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