I am one of those people who strangers tell their life story to on airplanes and then at the end of the flight, look somewhat embarrassed and say, “I don’t know why I told you all that. I’m usually a very private person.” People leave their luggage with me at train stations while they run to get a coffee. It seems to happen all the time. On several occasions, I’ve had people ask me to hold their babies while they use the restroom. I’m not sure what it is about me that people seem willing to trust me with their stories, their belongings and occasionally their infants. Perhaps I missed my calling as a therapist.
Usually I just listen and occasionally offer reassurance. Sometimes though, it’s hard to keep my mouth shut. Lately I keep finding myself in situations where people share with me what I think are terrible financial decisions. These are colleagues and acquaintances and occasionally perfect strangers. These are not deeper friendships where I could speak freely and honestly.
A colleague of mine was in a serious car accident. He has been recovering for over a year now and the financial strain has been difficult. Last time I spoke with him he had just learned that he was receiving a settlement of approximately $65,000. This was a man in his early 60s who had earlier confessed to me he hadn’t saved anything for retirement. Just as I was about to say, “Great, there’s a start to your retirement fund!”, he told me he went out and bought a brand new car with the settlement money.
It’s none of my business. It’s just that as someone who knows something about personal finance, it’s difficult to keep my mouth shut. It was too late to change his mind and he wasn’t asking for my opinion. Yet, I really wanted to sit down with him and share so many more financially wise possibilities for the settlement money.
In another situation I was a part of a conversation where two people were discussing which new van to buy to replace their aging, long paid off vans. When the conversation turned to financing, one person talked about the amount they were paying cash down. The other seemed surprised and said, “ We don’t have any money to put down. Where are we going to come up with the extra money for a deposit?” I wanted to ask him, “If you can’t come up with any extra money to save for a deposit, where are you going to get the money to pay for the monthly van payments?” Again, I didn’t say anything because it was clear his mind was set and there was very little I could say to talk him out of it.
It’s different when I meet with someone as a financial coach. In that setting I speak freely about financial options and the implications of choosing one alternative over another. In coaching, the person expects and values the feedback. In real life, people generally don’t want others interfering unless they specifically ask for an opinion.
Unless someone is in grave danger I generally don’t interfere in their lives. Yet if someone is in financial danger, should I be willing to speak up more often, even when someone’s choice has already been made?
If I were a doctor and saw someone in public with symptoms I thought could be potentially life threatening, I’d speak up. If I were a mechanic and someone suggested a modification to their car that could potentially put their safety at risk, I’d speak up. Yet when people around me continue to make what are in my opinion, unwise financial decisions that could potentially put their family’s future security at risk, I say nothing. It’s none of my business.
Kathryn works in public relations and training for a non profit. In her off hours, she volunteers as a financial coach helping ordinary Canadians with the basics of money management. Her passions include personal finance and adult education. Kathryn, along with her husband and two children live in Ontario.