Ask Amy: Your Relatives In A Recession Layoffs, foreclosures and dwindling savings accounts have affected many households. Chicago Tribune columnist Amy Dickinson has some advice on where to draw the line with in-laws, siblings, parents and adult children who knock on your door looking for help.
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Ask Amy: Your Relatives In A Recession

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Ask Amy: Your Relatives In A Recession

Ask Amy: Your Relatives In A Recession

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This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan. Genetics and love, two ties that bind us to family. But in this rocky economy, layoffs, foreclosures, dwindling savings accounts and wiped-out retirement funds are testing those bonds. Long-held beliefs teach us to share what we have with our relatives. But where and how do we draw the line with in-laws, siblings, parents and adult children whose wallets are empty and needs are wide? Today we check in with Amy Dickinson who writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" column for the Chicago Tribune. We ask her about our relatives on a recession. Later in the hour, why some of us just say no to Facebook. But first, dealing with the family's financial woes. What's happening in your family and how did you resolve the problem? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, and our email address is Of course, you can join the conversation at our Web site, that's at and then you click on Talk of the Nation. Amy is the survivor of many lost jobs, fresh starts and she's the author of the new memoir "The Mighty Queens of Freeville" and she joins us today from the studios of member station KWMU in Saint Louis, Missouri. Good to have you with us again, Amy.

AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, "Ask Amy"; Author, "The Mighty Queens of Freeville"): Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: And Amy, I'm going to begin by reading a letter from - that you got from a reader who is upset with some advice that you gave. And you can correct me if I'm wrong, but as I understand the situation that you were responding to, somebody wrote in and said, our parents retired early, their income is not what they expected it to be. They now want us to contribute some money on a monthly basis to their upkeeping.

DICKINSON: Right. But the...

NEARY: Go ahead.

DICKINSON: The important issue here in that particular letter was a man writing about his in-laws, and I think this is really important to think about because I'm sure he would have had a different attitude had it been his parents. He basically felt that his in-laws had more or less frittered away their money and then they had also lost a lot in the market as a lot of retired people have. And he was now being asked to contribute with other family members to their monthly income.

NEARY: Right. And you said, as I understand it, your point was that the son should help the father-in-law. But you got this response. And let's hear the response and then let's talk about that. Why should he jeopardize his financial future to ensure theirs? As an elementary school counselor, an important lesson I teach is that one's choices bear consequences. True, he and his family should be supportive in other ways such as having them for weekly dinners, paying their heating bill, et cetera. But paying ransom for their poor choices is bad advice. Shame on those parents for putting their children in such a position. This will probably divide the family. But again, this is due to their poor planning. Signed, Irate. So, did you change your mind about the advice you gave out in the first place on that?

DICKINSON: Well, I was happy to run that letter from Irate, as I always am from irate readers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DICKINSON: But the fact is, I, when I answered, I gave a nuanced answer, I thought. And the gentleman who wrote to me initially, one of his questions was, should I ask my wife to go to work to help support her parents. The answer? Absolutely. Absolutely she should. The in-laws were asking for $300 a month. There was no indication that this was going to break the bank of this other family. And I said, they're asking you to be investors in their life. As investors, you have a right to ask them to disclose to you exactly what their expenses are. And so, I like to think I gave this family a plan of action. But yes, I said I think you do need to step up. I mean, these are completely unforeseen situations and this couple, as the guy said, was in their 70s.

NEARY: Yeah. But what about - where do we draw the line? I mean, where does it end?

DICKINSON: Well, I think one place to draw the line is if it's going to place your own family at risk. That's a really - it's very important for parents to try and keep their own family's heads above water. But I do think that we need to, you know, consider what's going on with our elders and do what we can to help. And actually I loved Irate's suggestion that they take over, for instance, the utility bill. That's a fantastic suggestion.

NEARY: All right. Now, this is a case where you're dealing with parents. What about other relatives, siblings for example?

DICKINSON: Well, as somebody who, when the bottom fell out of my life, I moved into my niece's bedroom. I slept in a baby bed, Lynn, my daughter and I. And my sister allowed us, you know, welcomed us into a very open-ended arrangement. All the while knowing, I believe, that my daughter and I would eventually move out - and we did, we stayed, I think, for three months when I was at a low point in my life. However, I didn't ask her to support me financially. I think one thing families need to do is to make sure that these arrangements - like, they need to revisit, they need to agree to sit down once a week. If Uncle Buddy is moving in, or if your adult children are moving in, you should try at the outset to agree - let's sit down once a week and revisit. Let's see how this is going. Because when you bring people into your home to live in your household, guess what? They become members of your household. There are things - they should be expected to contribute to the household, and by contribute, I mean, jump up and do the dishes. This is what I did when I ended up living with my sister. I basically became a housewife for a while. I did house work and took - did some child care and that's how I tried to earn my keep.

NEARY: But you're saying that you should have this conversation right at the beginning. You should set limits at the beginning.

DICKINSON: Absolutely. And I know that it's very, very hard to do because everyone is in distress. But if you say, OK, let's try and sit down every Thursday and let's try to keep this not open-ended, but let's plan on this as a finite situation that we can help you through and we will be revisiting it every week to check in and see how it's going.

NEARY: I love this idea, but I know...


NEARY: That some families are good at communicating that way, and others not so much. For whatever reason, you know, they don't have the nerve to have the conversation at the beginning, and yeah, I think you're probably right, that leads to trouble in the end. But there is something just too hard about sitting down, having the really frank conversation at the beginning. I don't know how you can help people with that.

DICKINSON: Well, one way is to not think of it as a, you know, frank conversation but as a supportive conversation, where you say, let's talk about - let's try and figure out how this will go so it works well for everyone. What are the things you can do while you're here, how can we - you know, you have to talk about things like bathroom time. It's really, really important to lay out some of the mechanics if you're going to be cohabiting with more people. It's - and look, not everybody can adhere to these agreements that they make, but it's nice to have the conversation - and you don't have to think of it as a confrontation, of course.

NEARY: We're talking with Amy Dickinson about relatives on a recession. Meaning, what kind of situation is happening in your family? Are members of your family having some problems economically, are they coming to you for help? How are you responding to that? Those of you who are having some tough economic times, are - do you feel you can turn to your family? And if not, why not? Give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. You can send us an email to And I want to bring in Nancy Molitor on this discussion now. She's a clinical psychologist who helps patients through with many of these questions, and she joins us from her office in Chicago. Good to have you with us, Nancy.

Dr. NANCY MOLITOR (Clinical Psychologist, Chicago): Hi. Thank you.

NEARY: So, we were just talking with Amy about this idea of setting the boundaries early. When - how do you that in a really positive way so that the person you're dealing with doesn't become resentful of the fact that you're trying to tell them what to do? They're an adult, they don't want you telling them what to do, those kinds of situations can occur.

Dr. MOLITOR: Right. Well, I think - Amy, by the way, I want to say that I love Amy's advice. I think in her life story also illustrates what we're trying to help patients with right now, which is what we call resiliency. It's the ability to adapt to difficult situations, which is what we're in now, and to be able to bounce back from stress. Some people are fortunate in that they are resilient by nature. They grow up in families that learn, that know how to cope in tough times. Most people right now are learning it as they go. This is a skill that can be taught, and part of being resilient is also being flexible and having good communication skills. And what we're - this is, you know, part of being a good communicator is the ability to, you know, sit down and sit through what - trying to understand what the issue is. And I think in this case I would, you know, as a psychologist I would try to look at, you know, is this an issue of lack of flexibility, is this an issue of shame or, you know, difficulty with privacy or, you know, what exactly is the issue that's going on here. I mean, clearly - the other thing we're doing is we're sort of reinventing the notion of family. Family right now doesn't necessarily mean just your blood relatives, but many people right now during this recession are reaching out to good friends and are moving in with good friends that are - and you know, it's much a broader conversation that we have to think about.

NEARY: All right. I want to get a call in here now. We're going to go to Laura(ph). She's calling from Spring Lake, Michigan, I believe. Hi, Laura, go ahead.

LAURA (Caller): Hi. I've been grappling with a situation. My brother lived with us for a year while trying to find work, found a job, worked for six months and was laid off. And he's facing another situation where he might be out of a place to stay, just when he was getting his, you know, back on his feet and, you know, having to grapple with, do I let him live with us again? Now he's got a child with him and it's, you know, it tears at you.

NEARY: Does it put a lot of stress on your family situation, Laura?

LAURA: Yeah, I know, my daughter, in particular, she's like, oh, is he going to be moving back in again? And, you know, it just, it does put stress on you and you want to be, you know, giving and yet, you know, after you've had someone live with you for a year it's, you know, it does, you know, tear at you. And so, at the moment, I think he's riding out, you know, how long he can stay in the apartment that he has and he's using my house as kind of central station for job hunting, using my computer and you know, having lunch when he's there, and it's just a situation that I...

NEARY: It's a tough one.

LAURA: Yeah, with a lot of people.

NEARY: Laura, if you hold on the line, I'm going to ask our guests to begin to answer your question. We're probably going to take a short break quickly. But Amy, why don't you just start to respond to this first?

DICKINSON: Well, what I love about Laura's question, actually, is they have already done this. God bless, you know? But because you've already done it, it gives you an opportunity to may be do it differently. If there were things that did not work out last time, and I know his situation is different now because he has a child, it really does present an opportunity for you to say, OK, you know, when you were here last time, we loved the way this went, we find this more challenging. How can we do it differently?

NEARY: Amy, let's continue this when we come back from the short break. If you - we're going to continue this discussion about what's happening with families during the recession. If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255 or send us an email to I'm Lynn Neary, it's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. From time to time we talk about how this recession affects your life. Today, your relatives in a recession. Few things split families the way money can, especially when one person has it and the other doesn't. What's happening in your extended family and how did you resolve the problem? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, and our email address is Amy Dickinson is with us, she writes the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. And these days she's on a book tour promoting "The Mighty Queens of Freeville," her memoir. And with us on the phone, Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist. Before the break, Amy, you were responding to our caller, Laura. She's contemplating taking her brother in for the second time. And you were starting to say, the second time around do it a little differently.

DICKINSON: Well, it's an opportunity to have a conversation and revisit, and, as I say, you start by saying, here's what went well and, you know, here's what we feel we should try to do differently. And frankly, if this man has a child and the sister Laura also has a child, there are, perhaps, opportunities for him to provide some childcare for this family while they work. He could do after-school pick up while he's looking for work, and I think he should be expected to contribute to the household in every way he can, and that means cooking, you know, cooking meals, getting down and dirty cleaning, really contributing to the household.

NEARY: All right. I hope that helps you out, Laura.

LAURA: And, yeah, I certainly can appreciate that and the difference in - between the last time he stayed with us, his child wasn't with him, and now his child is with him.

NEARY: Yeah.

LAURA: And so it's, you know, certainly could approach that if we decide as a family that we want to allow, you know, him to stay with us again.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Laura.

LAURA: Thank you.

NEARY: Appreciate your calling in. I have an email here from Emily(ph) in East Lansing. She says, I have been married for over eight years and have two young children ages five and six. My mom and two teenage sisters had to move in with us in October of 2007. Of course, we knew that it would not go too good and it would take a lot of adjusting too, but that's what family does, you help each other. I am now writing my mother a letter telling her that she needs to be out by April 1st. My husband and I have agreed to pay all the bills by ourselves. We've been doing this since the beginning of the year so that she can save her money for a place to live. However, she has not been doing so. I need to put my children and husband first. I know what these people are going through 100 percent. It's hard, and what do you do?

Now, there's an example of somebody who has said, you know, you have to do something for yourself and the person isn't.

DICKINSON: Yeah. It's really...

Dr. MOLITOR: This is Nancy - Dr. Molitor. I wanted to jump in here, because again, I think that, you know, sometimes there are situations, despite your best efforts the other person isn't able to cope. And I guess one of the things you would, people have to be prepared for is that the plan may fail and how are they going to cope with the guilt that they may feel. And if the person isn't able to step up, I guess the other thing to ask yourself is if, are there, is there depression or is there, are there other health issues that might be impeding their ability to make the payments or to do what they promised that they can do, and in which case might be there help that that person needs to be, you know, help, you know, help to get to. And again, clinical depression is - we're seeing a tremendous amount of clinical depression right now. What started out in the fall is anxiety, you know, how am I going to get a job or have I been laid - if I've been laid off am I going to find another one, is now, for many people, become a full-fledged clinical depression and some people are simply unable to think or to function clearly and it can't, you know, literally don't have the ability to sort of plan ahead. So that would be the kind of thing I would also ask people to think about.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call now from Susan(ph) in Tallahassee, Florida. Susan, go ahead.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. About five years ago, my parents moved in to my brother's condo and they were paying him just a set monthly amount which just paid for their - I guess it's a homeowners' fee. And of course, he got married, and they had to buy a house instead of rent. And so he had to put a second mortgage on the condo. And my parents gave him a lot of money and put a lot of money in the condo to renovate it, but what my brother did with that money was pay off his debts. And now, he has a lot of debt because of his second mortgage and it - the bottom line was they had to go and move out of the condo because my brother couldn't financially afford them to be there. He needed to ask for more money and my parents are on a set income because they're retired and they couldn't pay any more...

NEARY: So, what is the - what effect is this is all having on your family? What's happening?

SUSAN: Well, it caused a lot of tension, and I'm the youngest and I have young children and I couldn't financially help them either. And my sister stepped up to the plate and helped them put a down payment on another, like a townhouse that my parents now have bought and owned, because for a long time they weren't having any kind of ownership. And now my brother is left having to sell the condo.

But it's just, it's still very tense, there were a lot of heated arguments, just like, well, we shouldn't have moved from our house, we could have sold our house or stayed in our house, and...

NEARY: Susan, I'm going to ask Nancy Molitor to respond, or Amy perhaps to respond to your call, because I wanted to ask this, too. When a situation gets really bad and anger flares up and there is this kind of tension and people start arguing, then what do you do, Amy? I mean, how do you start dealing with the situation? And Susan, thanks for the call, I'm going to have Amy respond to...

SUSAN: Thank you.

NEARY: To your situation.

DICKINSON: Well, this sounds like a family with a few siblings, just like mine. And there's often someone who is able to mediate, willing to mediate and sometimes you can find, honestly, there are - it's a new field, elder mediators, people whose job is to sort of mediate between children and their elderly parents. But - and, sometimes things are just really difficult, and this is a perfect example of how this completely unforeseen, to most of us, mortgage crisis has seeped down into the personal lives of all of us. Basically, this is a story about somebody who got stuck in the housing bubble.

NEARY: Right. And so you're saying that in a situation like that, the family just has to respond. But what about in situations where there are sort of, somebody has always been needy and this is just the latest form of neediness that they're showing within the family?

Dr. MOLITOR: This is Nancy Molitor. I want to, if I could take that on. That's what we're seeing in our practices. And of course the people that are coming in to our practices are typically people in that situation, who probably have been - there's been simmering family difficulties for years, and people were sort of able to find their way, and now something similar to this has happened, somebody has gotten laid off, somebody has borrowed money and, you know, the problems have become just as escalated, and people aren't talking to each other. And I would say in - I like Amy's suggestion in terms of a mediator. Sometimes, quite frankly(ph), the situation is more out of control, where there's potentially, you know, violent outbursts or situations where people are really not talking to each other and it's affecting the entire family. Sometimes you need to pull in a professional, might be a mediator, might be a family counselor, someone who's particularly...

NEARY: This is a professional even if you're dealing with adults, all adults, you're not talking about a sort of nuclear family of kids and parents, but all adults.

Dr. MOLITOR: Oh, absolutely, sure, of course. I mean, that would be very helpful. I mean, money right now - money stands for many things. Money is - when people are arguing about money, what you have to understand is that they're not arguing about money. They think they're arguing about money, but they're arguing about what money means to them.

Money means many things in different families. It can mean love, it can mean the absence of love, it can mean shame, it can mean guilt, you know what I mean? There's a very emotional component.

NEARY: And there's a real emotional - when you're saying those words, I thought, boy, those are really words that are full of a lot of power.

Dr. MOLITOR: Exactly.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dr. MOLITOR: And that's why we're seeing so many families in our offices, both extended families, nuclear families, brothers and sisters coming in with the impetus of the recession, but essentially they are issues that they've been simmering for a long time. But they are psychological issues that sometimes can only be dealt with in the context of a professional therapy kind of setting.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call from Linda(ph), and Linda is calling from Kansas City. And I do want to remind our other listeners that we are discussing relatives in a recession and how you deal with the situation when your relative needs help. Sometimes you are able to help them, sometimes you may not be able to - what if you need help. Give us a call, the number is 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Linda. She's in Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, Linda.

LINDA (Caller): Hello. Mine is really a terrible situation, seems have gone from bad to worse and then halfway getting good. But I was a single mother and raised two children. My daughter is a physician practicing here in the Kansas City area, and my son is in insurance. But I lost my job in 2003. For a while I was able to kind of maintain myself and come back until I lost the next job I got. My son's father passed away very suddenly, then his grandmother, my son's grandmother on his father's side, she passed away, and then my mother passed away in May of this year. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I'm being treated for that by a psychiatrist. I see a therapist every Thursday. I'm on Xanax for the anxiety but my children don't seem to understand that I need their help, and if nothing else, their support. They've never given me an ounce of support to say, gee, mom, you know, we're sorry this has happened to you - I mean, nothing like that. Now, I'm about to default on my home, I mean - and they just seem to have no sympathy. We argue over money and then they end up giving a little here, a little there. But it's just been so overwhelming for me and I just - I'm just devastated.

NEARY: Amy, Amy Dickinson, can you respond?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, and actually, I think this is a prime example of when your family isn't working and you're in distress, change your family. Really, reach out to friends, your church community. A lot of us receive a much better quality support and empathy from people we're not related to. And your children may have very longstanding issues with you that are just simmering now. They might be overwhelmed by their own young kids, their own careers, and it's just a shame this is happening to you. But I love the fact that you're getting help for your depression, it's absolutely vital. And the next thing you need to do is to find other people who can offer you the sort of community that you need and deserve to have.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for calling in, Linda. And we're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Felipe(ph), and Felipe is calling from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi, Felipe.

FELIPE (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

FELIPE: My question or comment is, you know, I've been listening to this and, you know, being a Latino and coming from a different culture I'm just amazed at how this can cause this much upheaval. And it's like the upheaval comes now, and people are trying to deal with it now, but maybe if the culture changed, which now that we have this kind of hardship, maybe it will. But I was just thinking - nothing, absolutely nothing, it would never - I would never hesitate if my brother or my sister needed to come live in our house, and I just can't imagine thinking for a moment if the world, you know, if the bottom fell out of my life that I would hesitate to call on, you know, my immediate family without a doubt, even my distant family. I mean, I have...

NEARY: So, are you saying, Felipe, you think that this is something that is part of the Latino culture that wouldn't be a problem for most Latinos to do, is that what you're saying?

FELIPE: Not just Latinos. I'm going to go a little further, because although I'm Latino and grew up in this country, we're from Europe, and in all of Europe - I mean, if you visit over there, you know, we don't have this hangup with our space. We don't live in huge homes and not everybody's got to have their own bedroom. You know I have two children and I'm fortunate, we live in a very large home, but my boys who are now teenagers share the same room. And there is a spare room, and they could easily have, you know, separated and we just don't let them, and when they ask why, I say, hey, when something happens to us, all you're going to have in this world is each other.

NEARY: All right. That's a great perspective. Thanks so much for calling in, Felipe. So, do you think there's a cultural aspect to this - either one of you, Nancy or Amy?

Ms. MOLITOR: I'll jump in. This is Nancy. Yeah, I think there is. We know from research in clinical experience, although I think that some of the culture - the global and cultural differences may be changing, but, yes, there's certain cultures which, of course, extended families that...

NEARY: Nancy, I just want to interrupt you for a second because I have to remind our listeners that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Go ahead.

Ms. MOLITOR: I'm saying, you know, in certain cultures the norm is to live with extended family members, and to also revere one's elders. And so, you know, this is - you know, our culture in the, you know, the '50s and '60s, early in the 20th century even, the idea was just sort of form your own strong nuclear family. And what we're seeing now with this recession, and we kind of talked about this earlier, is that this is a time, in fact, when you need to take a step back and think of your family in a much broader context. Your family might be brothers and sisters. It might be the neighbor. It might be your church members, you know, and going back to the notion of extended families but even broadening it. And I think that the people who can look at their life in that way, the resources are many and multiple kinds of resources, are doing better than the people who are, you know, have one or two nuclear family members that perhaps, quite frankly, they're not getting along with.

NEARY: Yeah. Let's see if we can get another call in here before we have to go. Susan from Pendleton, Indiana. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. I wanted to mention that it is a good thing to be a good Samaritan when you can and let your family move in if there aren't any extenuating circumstances, but you also need to do your homework. There are legal obligations that you may have if you let any of your family or friends move in with you. For instance, in Indiana, if somebody moves in, they so much as hang up a set of clothing in their closet, they need to stay there until you have given them 30 days written notice that they have to leave. So do the homework before you let somebody move in, or you could really escalate problems with family.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for that call, Susan. I don't know if you've considered that, Amy, at all.

Ms. DICKINSON: I've actually gotten letters about that, and, you know, I absolutely appreciate the issue, but there are times when I don't think, when you're dealing with family, it's necessarily wise to figure out all the legal angles. I really don't. I think it's something you need to talk with your family members, create, you know, reasonable expectations, and if you have to get your Uncle Buddy, you know, evicted, well, burn that bridge when you get to it.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to one more caller. We're going to go Esther from New Hampshire. Go ahead, Esther.

ESTHER (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I am calling with the more positive side of living with your family.

NEARY: Good.

ESTHER: And it may be because we did it by choice. I am a teacher, but I'm taking time off because I had a daughter a year ago. And my husband and I talked with my parents and decided that in order for me to be able to take time off, we would move in with them. And it does relate to the economy because where we live, the rent prices are just so high that - my husband is also a teacher and there's no way we were going to afford a place that would be suitable to raise my daughter in. But, you know, I just think it's wonderful living with my parents. And I agree with the previous caller, I think his name was Felipe, just talking about, you know, there's - so I think there's some problems with our culture and our reliance on the nuclear family and the amount of space that we think we need. I mean, also just in terms of the environment, these big houses. But we're also lucky that this is a pretty large house that my parents actually built with the plans to live with my aunt and uncle and their two children - they actually also still live here.

NEARY: I'm glad to hear that it's working out and good luck to you.

ESTHER: There are eight of us, I think, maybe nine with my daughter.

NEARY: Great.

ESTHER: I'm not sure, but there are a lot of us living in this...

NEARY: Well, we've run out of time so we ended on a positive note. So, thanks so much for calling in, Esther.

ESTHER: Thank you.

NEARY: And thanks to my guest, Amy Dickinson. She writes the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune and she's the author of "The Mighty Queens of Freeville." We also talked with Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist in Chicago.

Up next, more than 175 million people are on Facebook - why aren't you? I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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