my two cents

‘I Owe My Dad Money, and He Holds It Over My Head’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Dear Charlotte, 

In my early 20s, I lived in New York City and worked in magazines, which all goes to say I was not making enough money to live on. During that time, I borrowed what amounted to $16K from my father, mostly for medical expenses I couldn’t afford. I know I am very lucky that my family was able to subsidize me while I built up my career, and I truly am grateful for this zero-interest loan. I’m currently in my mid-30s and have been paying it back in monthly installments for the past five or so years. The balance is down to $8K, but I also have small children to support now. Paying my dad back won’t break the bank, but the pandemic took a chunk out of our income, and there are a lot of pressing things I’d much rather put that money toward instead — like child care and more recent medical expenses, for example.

Part of me wants to just pay this debt off and be done with it, but another part of me resents the situation. My father has kept a ledger detailing every cent he ever spent on me in my adult life, including gifts as well as loans. Emotionally, I would really appreciate some clemency, especially since he can afford it. (At the time of his retirement, he was earning in the $350K range, which is way more than my combined household income.) What should I do?

Dad Issues

My initial reaction is that you should continue to pay your dad back and wash your hands of the situation as best you can. Yes, you surely have much better things to do with $8K, and he doesn’t need it the way you do — that’s frustrating. But it also seems like he isn’t likely to change or let you off the hook. If he keeps records of every gift he’s ever given you, then it’s safe to say that his issues with money and control run deep. In that sense, the sooner that you remove this loan from your dynamic, the better.

That’s not to say that you should ignore how you’re feeling about this. Loans between loved ones are sticky business, and you’re allowed to be disappointed in your dad for holding this over your head. I also understand that your emotions are complicated by your gratitude for this money in the first place, which sounds like it really helped you out when you needed it. It’s upsetting to owe someone and feel shortchanged by them at the same time, especially when that person is your own father. The question is, should you involve him in your effort to make peace with this?

Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist, points out that your dad seems to have divorced your familial relationship from your financial one — a tough thing to do, for most people. “Your father has clearly put a transactional framework on your relationship when it comes to money, which does not really consider your circumstances,” she says.

It also ignores the fact that your life has evolved since he lent you this money. “If your dad wanted to set clear expectations around boundaries and responsibility, then issuing a loan under a formalized agreement would fit the bill,” she says. But you’re no longer in your 20s, learning how to live on your own; you’re a capable adult who’s supporting her own family. To me, it’s overkill that your dad is still trying to hammer home a lesson about financial independence that it seems you learned a while ago. But he may never see it that way — to him, it could just be a matter of principle.

If you do decide to tell him how you feel, then you need to anticipate how his response will impact you. “This is going to be a sensitive talk, and you should think about how you will be able to hear whatever his answer is,” Clayman says. We all have certain things we wish our parents would say to us, and must find a way to accept the fact that they never will. But does that also mean you shouldn’t give him the chance to see your point of view? That’s up to you.

Clayman recommends using language like, “I can and will make these payments to you, as we agreed. But I also want you to know that it is difficult to do so while also paying our expenses, keeping my career going, and raising young kids. And one way that you could support me in this moment, as a parent, is by forgiving the rest of this loan. I get the sense that this is not something you’re prepared to do, but I wanted to bring it up, and I’m curious what you think about it.”

Alternatively, you could bring this up after you’ve finished paying off the loan, to clear the air and try to repair your relationship moving forward. That would defeat the purpose of him giving you a break, but you might also feel more secure in making your point once you’re in the clear — the stakes will be lower.

Finally, it’s important to see that there is no right or wrong action here. “Parents are limited, fallible creatures, and it can hurt when we want something from them that they’re not able to understand or give,” says Clayman. “No matter what the outcome, I think it’s worth trying to understand why it’s happening, instead of avoiding it or making assumptions.”

‘I Owe My Dad Money, and He Holds It Over My Head’