Sam, 31, is a tech consultant who lives in Brooklyn with her husband. Three months ago, her sister Jessica, 27, got laid off from her ad-sales job and moved in with them to save money while she looked for work. It was supposed to be temporary, and Sam was happy to help. Although Jessica is a considerate roommate (she cooks and cleans and walks their dog), her stay is starting to feel … not so temporary. She finally got a new job, but it doesn’t pay as well as her old one, and she claims she needs more time to save. She doesn’t contribute to their rent, cable, or other bills, but Sam doesn’t ask her to, because it might mean she stays longer. Sam is worried Jess will never be financially independent, and feels responsible for not creating more boundaries with her up front, but she’s also getting annoyed. She can’t kick Jessica out — she wouldn’t have anywhere to go, and it would devastate her and their relationship — but she and her husband are getting impatient with the situation. How can she get her sister to be more responsible and stop mooching off of them?
Let’s begin with the obvious: Your sister needs to move out. She knows it, too, but she’s just not on the same timeline, or even aware it exists. That’s the problem with boundaries: You often don’t know you need one until somebody’s crossed it. And when that person is a loved one, nudging them off your turf can be messy business, especially when they’re literally underfoot.
There’s a great line in The Breakup when Vince Vaughn’s character is playing video games on the couch and Jennifer Aniston’s character yells at him, “I don’t want you to do the dishes. I want you to want to do the dishes.” This is a neat summation of your “roommate” problem: You don’t want to force your sister to do anything. You want her to intuit your needs, align them with her own, and choose to move out. But she can’t read your mind, and entropy is a powerful counterbalance to the desire for self-sufficiency.
When it comes to putting your foot down, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. If you stay quiet, your resentment will build, and your relationship will suffer. If you speak up, you run the risk of hurting her feelings. Both paths are slippery. I had a mooching roommate before, too, and it ruined our friendship when I refused to admit that yes, it did bother me when she borrowed my clothes, used my laptop, and (weirdly) napped in my bed without asking.
I felt insulted that she didn’t respect my stuff — or me, by extension — but instead of bringing it up, I just seethed. Eventually, she annoyed me so much that we don’t speak anymore. The difference between generosity and tolerating a mooch isn’t your level of selflessness; it’s your ability to define what’s yours, and go to bat for it — kindly.
Step one, according to Kristy Archuleta, a financial therapist and professor at Kansas State University, is to deploy the “I” statement trick (a textbook method in couples therapy) to express concern. “For instance, you could say something like, ‘I get worried when I see you going into credit card debt, because I don’t know how you’ll be able to live independently, and I know that’s something you really want to do,” Archuleta says. (This is opposed to a “you” statement, which assigns blame: “You’re going into credit card debt, and you’re making me worry.”)
If your sister is extra sensitive, Archuleta recommends broaching the topic with a general comment. “You could try, ‘I get worried when I see people using their credit card without paying it off every month,’ or ‘I have a friend who got into a lot of credit card debt when she was between jobs, and it was hard for her. How is it going for you?’” she suggests. “The objective is to communicate clearly what’s making you uneasy, without pointing your finger at her.”
Step two: Articulate your own needs. “Boundaries are like a fence,” Archuleta explains. “You could have none at all, which means there’s undefined space — no differentiation between what’s mine and yours. Or you could have a concrete wall, which is extremely rigid — no one comes in or out, and you can’t see through it.” What you want is a happy medium. “Envision the boundary like a picket fence,” says Archuleta. “You can see over it and talk through it, but it’s still a clear line.” You want to maintain control over your own life, and presumably your sister wants control of hers.
Building the fence, especially from scratch, takes more than a cute analogy. The key, says Archuleta, is to describe how your sister’s actions are negatively impacting you (again, with “I” statements). Don’t forget to incorporate your husband’s needs — he’s a mooch victim here, too — and be as specific as possible. There’s no silver bullet that will make your sister go away, but in order for her to want to stick to a solution, she has to know how you feel.
Like you, my friend Andy learned this the hard way: For over a decade, she couldn’t get her sister to repay an old loan.“I didn’t even notice for years,” says Andy. “My sister can be fragile, so I tiptoed around the subject a number of times, and always felt guilty about it. But when I was in grad school, my tuition bills put things in perspective. I realized that I would have been in a much better financial position if she hadn’t taken that money, or had repaid me sooner. And that was how I got her to do it — by telling her exactly what my school cost, when the bills were due, and how much that money from our dad would help me out.”
Still, Andy regrets that she wasn’t more proactive earlier. “I wish I’d been more up front, both with myself and my sister, about how that loan affected me,” she says. “I wish that I had asked for interest on it, and discussed details.” Either way, the process was awkward. “I had to say the same things over and over again, and I know my sister was miffed and probably talked about me behind my back,” she says. “In the end, though, I got what I wanted.”
Now, whenever she deals with money-related issues within her family, she puts it in writing. “My sisters are super disorganized about finances, and if there’s a disagreement later, it’s helpful to have an email to refer to,” she says. “We weren’t taught how to do that growing up. I think a lot of women are encouraged to be giving and nurturing, but when that attitude is applied to money, it can hurt you a lot.”
Many people believe that you should never give loans to loved ones, period. While that’s admirable, it’s just not how most humans behave. One recent survey found that 38 percent of Americans had borrowed money from friends and family in the past year, with the average loan amount being $3,239. Think about it, Sam: If you were charging your sister rent and utilities, the total might be around that much by now.
Reaching a picket-fence-style compromise with your sister will take work and maintenance, and it’s important to pay attention to your gut throughout the process. “Be on alert for your own emotions,” says Archuleta. “When you feel resentful, that’s when things have gone too far.” And your sister doesn’t want that, either.