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.


  1. Dusen on September 24, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Great article. I guess it comes down to that you can’t give advice that hasn’t been asked for. I have friends that make what I think are nutty financial moves, but if I said as much it would definitely hurt the friendship. I guess it’s almost the same as giving unsolicited relationship advice.

  2. FrugalTrader on September 24, 2009 at 9:29 am

    That’s my rule of thumb as well, no financial advice unless they ask for it, or if they’re in financial trouble and there’s an easy solution that could help them out.

  3. Alexandra on September 24, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Yuop, that’s just the way it works in most professions where you offer advice – you can’t offer it unsolicited. I am sure many marriage counsellors struggle with this too.

    If it makes you feel any better, until people take that first step in admitting they have financial trouble and need help, they probably would just blow off your advice anyways!

  4. Finance Matters on September 24, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Sometimes what I do is say something like ” I had a client in a similar situation but I advised her to do ______ , and this benefited her by ….” This way I’m not giving them advice directly, just telling them what I had suggested to someone else else.

  5. Four Pillars on September 24, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I don’t offer advice unless the person seems interested in which case I’ll try to give some simple (and quick) tips.

    Don’t feel bad Kathryn – even if you had reached out to all those people it’s very likely that very few or possibly none of them would have listened to a word you said. If they are not interested, they’re not interested.

  6. Scott on September 24, 2009 at 11:20 am

    I just learned the financial details of some friends and their family (2 children). It is pretty shocking…well, maybe just to me…you never know what real deal is with people’s money.

    They budget $5000 a month for all EXPENSES = $60,000.
    This means their combined GROSS income would have to be somewhere in the range of $100,000/year(?). This is simply not the case with this family.

    (According to Stats Can, the NET average income of a two-income earner family with two children was $81,400 in 2007).

    They have a $450,000 35-year mortgage @ 4.75% which required a CO-SIGNER!

    It is obvious there is both zero wiggle room in their budget as well as zero savings allocation. I could say a lot of things about their situation but the most disturbing is the lack of thought for their children. If something goes wrong… They are in so deep that no amount of “advice” will begin to save them.

  7. Kathryn on September 24, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Great points! Unsolicited advice is often unappreciated. I like Financial Matters idea about sharing a similar story without any direct advice.

    Scott. I see the same thing a lot. My guess is that many think in terms of their gross income, spend it’s it’s net income and wonder what happened.

  8. Kirk S. on September 24, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Money is unfortunately a taboo topic in our society. The problem is that financially small changes can make a difference in the long term, but people are unwilling (or unable) to see this. For the person who received a large cash settlement, he probably thought “It’s too late for me to worry about my retirement”. Someone has to wake people up and help them realize that the government won’t always be able to support them!

    Similarly to the people saving for the van. I gave this advice to friends, when preparing to purchase a house, if they are unable to save for 6 months what they are paying in rent (to go towards their down payment for their house) then they will be financially unable to afford their house, no matter what the bank says.

  9. No Debt Guy on September 24, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    It is a very tough spot to be in. You have a desire to share your knowledge to improve peoples lives. I say, “Go for it!,” until you get the impression that they do not want your knowledge.

    I am big on not carrying any high interest debt and then putting extra funds against the mortgage and I preach it. Once people have a look at a spreadsheet and I am showing them how to save $50K quite easily they are a little more inclined to pay attention. :)

  10. Mike on September 24, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Kathryn – If you ever see me about to shoot my foot off (financially speaking), please let me know. I’d rather look like an idiot for a minute, than be crippled (financially) for a life time.

  11. Brendan on September 24, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    People are funny. It is not just unsolicited advise that isnt appreciated but asked for advise also.

    A fellow at work asked my opinion on his mortgage renewal. Variable or 5 year.

    He always went 5 year because “ya never know”.

    I suggested he go variable, and :

    a) shorten the amortization so the variable payment matches the 5 year payment he was going to make anyway.

    b) open a sub account and have the bank automatically transfer the savings from going variable into it. Every 6 months or so make an extra mortgage payment.

    I tried explaining that variable would save him money and since he was prepared to pay a higher monthly payment paying down the mortgage by the savings would give him a cushion from rising rates.

    He signed a 5 year term.

    Ya never know.

    Ps my credit union has better rates than he was offered. It doesnt really matter who takes your payment does it? Why not sign with the better rates?

    Wouldnt do it. He likes “his girl” at his bank. He has been banking there for years.

    I just dont get why people ask and then do something different?

    Do they just ask, hoping that you will agree with them?

  12. Dwight on September 24, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    where would the world be without spendthrifts, cars are the worst investment a person can make yet they keep alot of people employed. I say live and let live, as long as it doesn’t effect you. It gives me a quiet confidence to know I have a higher “financial IQ” than most my age, I dont preach it but if someone asks I am more than happy to offer my opinion. I guess talking money is a little like talking religion….kind of a faux pas unless inquired about.

  13. DividendMan on September 24, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    I’m going to take a different angle here. It’s about values. Perhaps, just perhaps, some people don’t care about filing for bankruptcy, or having retirement savings they can look at. Different people have different values.

    If you think leasing a BMW that you can barely pay the monthly payments for is worth more than financial security – who am I to argue with that? You’ll have more fun than I will saving, that’s for sure.

    If he thinks flirting with a girl at the bank is worth the extra point of interest, maybe it is – to him! Maybe that relationship will lead to bigger things.

    Who are you (or we) to say what they are doing is “stupid” and what we are doing is “smart”. When you get hit by a bus tomorrow (or just look back at your youth) and realized you could have had a lot more fun if you spent the money and lived on the edge, maybe *you’ll* be thinking you made some of their decisions.

    Maybe. Just another viewpoint before we all start patting ourselves on the back for withholding or not withholding our genius financial advice.

  14. Jim on September 24, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    A coworker of mine recently told me that he had rolled the purchase of his car into the mortgage on his house. I just couldn’t say anything, but I was cringing inside! Doesn’t the average mortgage often result in an about equal amount to the principal in interest payments? So instead of paying $20,000 for a used Honda, he will be paying $40,000 when all is said and done!

    I have to say that I think the trend to finance everything is a really unhealthy one in our society. My wife is Chinese, and her family (and Chinese friends) would NEVER finance anything unless absolutely necessary. Even in the case of a mortgage or a car, they save up as much as possible over a period of many years before they make a purchase.

    It seems that on a macro level as well, China is doing much better financially than the West is… we could probably learn a thing or two from the Chinese (or any other culture that still retains good financial habits!)

  15. Henry on September 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    My experience is that the best decisions that I have made so far is where I did cost benefit analysis with minimal asymmetric information. The worst decisions that I have made so far is where I did not do a thorough cost benefit analysis and there were a lot of asymmetric information. In behavior economics, the assumption is that humans are not rational and humans need to put in a lot of effort to become rational.

    I am trying my best apply economics principles in my own life and sometimes I recommend other people to do the same.

    Getting one’s personal finance in order is one of the best things that anyone can do.

  16. Carmen on September 24, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    some people you just want to shake and ask them “are you kidding!”. but definately, dont give FINANCIAL advice unless they ask.

  17. Sarlock on September 24, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    The greatest gift you can give to your children is a solid understanding of money and finances. It is such an important part of our lives and yet it remains a taboo subject in many families.

    On the advice front, it’s wasted breath to instruct someone on finances if they aren’t asking and willing to receive an uncomfortable answer. It’s like telling a smoker they shouldn’t smoke… they know they shouldn’t but they still don’t want you to tell them that.

  18. Michael - The Fat Loss Authority on September 24, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Hey… your not Kathryn!
    I thought you were a sketch with wavy hair:)

    Good article as always Kathryn. As Sarlock pointed out above, it’s still very much a taboo subject and that’s why you don’t hear it being talked about more openly and honestly.


  19. Canada Deals on September 24, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    “if someone is in financial danger, should I be willing to speak up more often, even when someone’s choice has already been made?”

    I say “yes”. They will still continue to make bad choices down the road but they won’t know what they’re doing wrong, until someone like you, spells it out for them.

  20. Ms Save Money on September 24, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Here is something to think about – if someone is making a “financial mistake” and they seem to be adamant about the decision you don’t need to give them advice – BUT I think that instead of giving advice – give them a question to think about.

  21. Michael on September 24, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Most people are beyond help. I attended a friend’s birthday dinner back in November when the market was tanking, and several friends were moaning (though not getting in to specifics) about the sorry state of their finances, and wrote it off that they were in the same situation as everyone else. Feeling the need to snap them out of their stupor, I said “actually, I’ve never been better” (which was/is true). I know their bad habits and that they won’t change for any reason short of something catastrophic, so I thought I may as well enjoy myself for a moment. Naturally we don’t talk about finances on any level any more.

  22. Kathryn on September 24, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    The consensus seems to be it’s best to stay out of it. I wondered if more would comment that I had an ethical duty to speak up if I knew someone was about to make a huge financial mistake.

    I like the idea of saying, “I know of another situation where…” as it’s not direct advice or as Ms Save Money suggested giving them a question to think about.

  23. Four Pillars on September 24, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    I think if you see someone about to walk off the financial abyss then you should say something even if they don’t want to listen.

    It’s rarely that clear cut however. :)

  24. JFG on September 25, 2009 at 12:16 am

    Because financial advice is based on past performance. And in all honesty, it’s not the best advice.

    Take the Variable rate mortgage example from above.

    what if I would have taken that five years close in early ’80’s and you stick to your flex. I would have missed the +20% while you, well, you know.

    I don’t give advice. I tell them my thoughts (if they ask) and let them make their own minds (you can lead a horse to water….)

    My investing philosophy is that I always put a little in cash. Why? for when something like last year brought. i purchased stocks when they were lower. My philosophy, and I like it. Doesn’t mean you HAVE to agree with me.

  25. archanfel on September 25, 2009 at 3:26 am

    My opinion is there are financial choices and there are life-style choices. While the former is more calculated, the later is far more subjective. Take smoking for example, we all know it’s bad for you, but it’s perfectly normal for somebody to make a life style choice to exchange a long healthy life for a few years of enjoyment. There’s nothing wrong with it. Another example is buying a house. We can argue about buying v.s. renting for all eternity, but it usually comes down to a life-style choice more than a financial choice. I once told somebody to live with their parents for a while before buying a house, he replied that he wouldn’t be able to do it on the stairs then, I shut up. :)

    I think the one suggestions we can give anybody is for them to frequent website like this and financial forums more. People are far more direct on the Internet.

  26. kenyantykoon on September 25, 2009 at 5:47 am

    it is also the same with me but to a lower extent because once they tell me their business, it becomes my business and thus i get all over it with my reviews and criticisms. but there are some times that one must mind their own business

  27. CanadianDad on September 25, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Some professions would introduce an ethical duty to step in, I think it’s because the knowledge required to be an expert in that field is seemingly more complicated than money management.

    No one really knows about bodily health and would have no problem taking unsolicited advice from a doctor.
    Many people aren’t car experts, and wouldn’t mind an honest tip from a mechanic.

    When it comes to money and the personal management of it, many people don’t know very much or execute well at all. Because they’ve been using money for most of their lives, though, they think that they know all there is to know. Buying consumer goods, paying bills, paying taxes, contributing to RRSP’s…that’s ALL there is to personal finance, right?

    Teenagers seem to know everything, and would get testy should you suggest otherwise. I guess when it comes to money management, many people are the same way!

  28. Four Pillars on September 25, 2009 at 10:15 am

    he replied that he wouldn’t be able to do it on the stairs then

    Lol – thanks for the laugh!

    Good point about lifestyle – that’s hard to influence in a 2 minute (or less) conversation.

  29. Forex Hacked Review on September 25, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Good read, definitely will pass this one along. Everybody feels entitled to too much, that is what I get from this read.

  30. Canada Deals on September 25, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Um, where did my comment go? Did I say something wrong?!

  31. Tommy O'Dell on September 27, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Hi Kathryn,

    Have you ever come across a book called Crucial Conversations?


    I read it a few months ago and it’s totally reshaped how I give difficult advice. It teaches you how to deliver difficult messages in a way that’s “hearable” to the receiver. The result – I’m much more comfortable giving my two cents knowing that my advice is now likely to be well received. For someone like yourself who gives a lot of difficult financial advice, I’m sure much of the content is gonna familiar to you (at least intuitively). But I imagine at least it could help tie things together.

    If you’d like to know more about it, please drop me a line.

  32. Kathryn on September 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Tommy: I haven’t heard of Crucial Conversations but it looks really good. It’s really highly rated on amazon too. It looks like an excellent book. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll be sure read it.

  33. Canada Deals on September 29, 2009 at 2:03 am

    Frankly I’m surprised by the consensus of “stay out of it”. I understand that it can be considered intrusive to offer advice when it’s not being asked for but there are ways of getting your point across without being rude… aren’t there? My $0.02.

  34. used tires on September 29, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Perhaps this happens because people see trust in you, because of perhaps the energy or vibe that comes off from you. And as far as financial advising it is a tough thing, just like politics people have their strong opinions and are fixed on it… As you know by now… I am in my third year of Finance at College, and even from my professors stories they experience the same things when trying to advise others with their finances.

    Till then,


  35. Briefcases on October 2, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Yeah that is a tough call. I would be very tempted to tell these people the big mistakes they are making. While it is technically not your business, you happen to know what’s best for them. It is just a matter of wording it nicely enough that they don’t get offended.

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