Boundaries: Protecting Yourself From Unrealistic Financial Expectations

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It was 2:45 AM local time when the phone rang. It continued ringing ceaselessly as if it tried to convey the seriousness of the situation from the caller. I looked at the number and did not recognize it. However it was a phone call from back home in Nigeria. I was deep in sleep, but I considered this could be a call from a family member back home. But, didn’t they think of the time difference before placing the call? Maybe they’re in distress? Maybe this is a serious emergency?

I picked up the phone and answered. It was my old high school class mate from back home. The last time I spoke with him was probably about 10 years ago. We are not particularly close. I asked him how he was and what the matter was. He asked me to send him some money that his wife just had a baby through a C-section and needed to pay the hospital bills.

* * * * * *

I was browsing on my Facebook when I got a ping indicating a message from my Facebook Messenger. It was from a casual acquaintance back home. We often comment on each other’s posts on Facebook but I couldn’t say we were that close. She wanted me to send her money to help her organize a child dedication ceremony for her newborn baby. I congratulated her on the new baby, then asked why she needs money to do a child dedication, usually done in the church. She stated that it was her first child and she wanted to give her a befitting dedication ceremony with a nice reception. I asked if she and her husband couldn’t afford it and she said they didn’t have enough money.

* * * * * *

On a breezy Saturday afternoon, I got another call, this time from a very distant cousin. She was getting married soon and she wanted me to buy her wedding dress here in the US (with my money) and send it down to her. The last time I had spoken with her was probably more than 10 years prior, but she recently heard that I was living in the US and got my number from another family member. I asked her if the wedding dresses sold in Nigeria are not good enough. She said she preferred to get one from abroad.

* * * * * *

If you’re an immigrant living in America, especially those from 3rd world economies like most of sub-Saharan Africa, you probably have had a similar experience to those ones listed above, or at least a version of it. There is no doubt that Africans in diaspora, by their financial repatriation back home, help to lift up the economies of their home countries and this can be a good thing. For example, Africans in the Diaspora sent home $33 billion in 2014 to their relatives or friends to help pay for living expenses, education, health care and even to start a business, according to Huffington Post.

But then, how do you set healthy boundaries so you are not taken advantage of? How do you strike a balance to help your folks back home and yet try to get ahead? I personally struggled with this myself for a while. At the times when I said no, I was often put into a guilt trip by the person I said no to. They will accuse me of losing my culture or abandoning my value system to help. It was hard.

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Boundaries: Line on sand

Then one day, I read the book BOUNDARIES by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. It was an eye opener. The book teaches you when to say yes and how to say no to take control of your life.

So when you get that call or message from home asking for money, how do you deal with it? Here are the factors I consider to help me handle such situations:

1. Determine The Nature Of The Situation

Is this an emergency (like health issue)? Is it urgent or can it wait? Is it reasonable (sending money to help with living expenses vs to buy a flight ticket to go for a wedding in a different city)? Can the situation be resolved without you sending money? Can you verify that this situation actually exists and that you’re not actually being ripped off? These questions will help you figure out if you can help

2. Do You Have A Healthy Relationship With This Person?

Is this request from someone in your family or your friend that you actually have a relationship with? A relationship is a two-way street, not one-sided. If I’m the one that calls you all the time to chat and you never call me but when you do, it is only to ask for money, this is not healthy. In other words, is this person making this financial request a ‘frequent flyer”, always asking for money? If so, they will keep asking for money, no matter how much and how often you give. You will be enabling their bad behavior if you succumb to their plans.

3. Are You Consumer Debt Free?

Most of our folks back home do not appreciate that many people in diaspora often have a lot of personal consumer debt that they deal with. They fixate on the great disparity in exchange rate between the dollar and the local home currency and that if you only send a little amount, it will turn to sizeable amount for them in the local currency. But that $100 or $200 could mean a lot to you if you can put it to your attacking your debts. Besides, it makes no sense for you to be groaning under the pains of consumer debt while trying to help someone else. There is a reason the flight attendants in airplanes tell people to put on the mask on their face in the case of an emergency before helping someone else, even if it is their own child

4. How Much Are They Asking/Can You Afford It?

Most often, they wouldn’t mention the amount they are asking, but you can get a sense of it by what exactly they need the money for. For example wanting to open a small business vs needing to pay for a school project. But there are ones who are bold enough to mention the exact amount they want. I’ve been asked once by a friend to give him $1,000 to help him pay for some merchandise (yes, he was that exact).

After considering the other factors, can you afford to grant this financial request without it affecting your monthly financial bottom line, as indicated by your budget? Like Abraham Lincoln once said, “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves”.

Can you try to strike a middle ground and give the person what you can, even if it’s not the whole amount they are asking? Certainly this is quite reasonable for me, if anyone requests for a loan. My personal philosophy is that I simply do not give loans to family or friends. That’s one good way to destroy a relationship if and when they can’t pay it back. I’d rather give them what I can afford and tell them not to pay back.

When I consider all the factors listed above, I then make my decision. Sometimes, I give, sometimes I don’t. But I am at peace with myself. And if the person is not happy with my decision, and they carry a grudge against me, the book Boundaries has helped me realize that it’s really not my fault. This system is certainly not perfect but it has helped me navigate the murky waters of financial requests from folks back home. Generosity is a big part of most wealthy people and it plays a big part in my life too. However it pays to be diligent in your giving.

What do you think? Have you been financially solicited by your folks back home? How do you handle such situations? Comment below

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16 thoughts on “Boundaries: Protecting Yourself From Unrealistic Financial Expectations

  1. Wow this is an eye opener. I got a random FB message from a classmate I haven’t seen since the 90’s, I checked, we haven’t had any meaningful interactions on Facebook except to like each other’s pictures. Her request was to assist with funeral expenses for an uncle, that she received a call from back home about. She insisted that the money from is insurance was not enough to pay for the funeral and wanted my help. I was blown away by the forwardness of the request given the nature of our relationship. I was guilt ridden and stuck, so not wanting to be the bad guys I was tempted to given in to the request until I read this post. Thank you for sharing. “DARING TO SET BOUNDARIES IS ABOUT HAVING THE COURAGE TO LOVE OURSELVES EVEN WHEN WE RISK DISAPPOINTING OTHERS” – Brene Brown

    • It’s all too familiar and I’m sure most immigrants experience something like that. Sometimes you just have to be firm like in the situation you described. And you really don’t have to feel guilty about it.

  2. The problem is that it’s difficult and sometimes impossible not to be suckered into sending money home. That’s why it is difficult to see a retired immigrant at 65 who is not struggling for money. They have sent all their money back home and then had to suffer for it. The brain neurons stop growing at 18 to 19. Our memory may be stuck on that . It’s easier to do the right thing if you left at 10 yrs or lower when your brain and memory are growing at the same wavelength. Most of Us cannot even have a real friend in our new home. You see doctors go through three yrs of residency and in the process not meet any new friend. It’s a difficult puzzle. It’s even worse if your loaded siblings or parents are at your fathers home . You also have friends to impress from your original country . There is also that guy or man who did this or that to your family and you need to show him the end has jusitified the means. You purposely shield yourself from integrating in a new society. The new society only means a fantasy island even though you will end up living there until you die. You also forget that your kids are Americans and that if everyone send away all the dollars that at some point your child will not have an economy to thrive. You talk of your fathers home and not your kids home. You become a real full time sucker.

    • I agree. It’s really very difficult not to be suckered in. It’s a great balancing act. But like you rightly pointed out, if you keep giving in, you might find yourself broke at retirement. Moderation in all things!

  3. Very serious topic that have been affecting relationships between folks back home and the ones abroad for decades ( probably goes back to the first Africans who left the continent after the 60’s). I have witnessed as a little girl uncles and aunts that were being mocked and ridiculed by the same people they were repeatedly helping during their time abroad. They did that so much they weren’t able to put money aside for when the time to return home arrives

    • Yes, this issue has destroyed a lot of relationships. For some folks, no matter how much you’ve ever given in the past, if you ever say no once, they label you as mean and wicked. It’s a very thorny issue

  4. As you rightly pointed out, boundaries are important, otherwise, when we constantly oblige whoever asks for money, we get caught up in this never ending carousel. We need to be able to draw a line, even if that action gets us a label of being mean or callous

  5. Excellent piece of writing. Very easy to connect.

    This is a common immigrant problem. Don’t be a piggy bank. I usually assess the situation first. It’s like a sales pitch sometimes. People who have not said hello in 3 years sometimes suddenly asked for money, even without asking how I am doing first. Those are usually immediate no.

    We have to learn to say no and be ok with it too. Don’t ever feel guilty about it.

    We medical professionals have exorbitant loans here, so technically we are poorer than many of the people asking for the money.

  6. Excellent read, hits close to home. Most of us immigrants have had scenarios like these play out at one time or the other. The guilt that comes from saying “No” or refusing to send the requested money is often the hardest part of the process.
    Ultimately it boils down to being true to your own story, knowing that if you don’t ‘pay yourself first’, no one else will.
    Then again, while it’s true that some of our family/acquaintances back home may ask us for money for flippant reasons, life is often times really hard back home and sometimes they just need a leg up in life.
    Having a discerning spirit when fielding these requests helps a lot, occasionally you will get conned but still nothing beats the true satisfaction one gets from having truly helped another human being who needed assistance at some point in life.
    Great read!

  7. In Europe ppl have one child because of economic hardship. In USA ppl have 2 to 3 because of high cost of education. In Nigeria ppl have seven because they think they are poor. Does not make sense to me. As a middle class American no one has enough money to give to someone who created a problem to himself unless you want to deny your own children best of things. And believe me if deny them best of things they will grow and leave and you will never see them again. Plan wisely lol.

  8. While reading your experiences I kept coming back to the same thought, all we can do is our best… no more, no less. Boundaries sound simple, but in the moment full of emotion can be hard to determine. Even though it is a great challenge, I completely agree with your approach. Everything comes down to balance & boundaries. Like Brene Brown wisely pointed out, part of this is about loving and respecting ourselves enough to do the right thing. I can’t imagine all you deal with, but I really admire your giving heart. You’re simply setting a priority to love and respect yourself so you can love others with integrity.

  9. One thing you can do is budget a set amount for each year. Once that is gone, it is gone. “I am sorry, but I have run out of funds for this year.” Let your mother (or one person over there) know there is a fixed amount. That is what I would do in such a situation.

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