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Money Manners: Should You Pick Up The Tab For Unemployed Friends And Family?

Paying for lunch for an unemployed friend or sibling is nice, but where do you draw the line? Experts say it depends on the relationship and the situation.

Paying for unemployed friends or family is nice, but where do you draw the line?This month, a reader wrote:

My older sister has been out of a job for two years. She’s trying hard to find work but hasn’t had any luck. I feel for her, but I’m also starting to feel like she’s taking advantage of me. Whenever there’s a family birthday or event (a few of our cousins are getting married this year), she waits for me to buy a gift and then asks if she can sign the card. Can’t she make them a gift? Especially for my parents – they’ve loaned her money. I’m sure it will happen again when Mother’s Day rolls around. To make matters worse, whenever we eat out and the bill comes, I always end up paying because she always brings up her money woes during the meal. Last week, she didn’t even make an attempt to fake-pay. It’s not like I’m a Wall Street banker. Do I just chalk this up to a sisterly duty and keep my mouth shut?

You’re a great sister for picking up so many restaurant tabs, and letting your sister wallow in gift-giving glory at Christmas and wedding showers. In fact, I suspect you might keep on doing these “sisterly duties” if your sister would say so too. But if she hasn’t expressed her thanks yet, she’s probably not going to.

The truth is that sometimes people, especially siblings, aren’t who we wish they were. You get to choose your friends, and you can stop seeing them whenever you feel like it. But your sister was chosen for you, and cutting her out of your life isn’t an option.

Some might suggest you tell your sister what you’re feeling, but I’m not one of them.

Assuming she’s not just kvetching about her job and money woes in the hopes of getting a free meal, she’s already anxious and depressed about her situation. If you’re honest with her about your feelings, there’s a chance she’ll misunderstand you, and walk away feeling like her sister just said, “You’re a big old loser who sponges off of me for food and gifts.”

No need to kick the woman when she’s already down.

Jorie Scholnik, an etiquette expert who specializes in the millennial market, agrees. “The thing that stood out to me was that the sister is trying to get a job. It’s tough going through the job search process,” she says.

The only person you can control here is yourself. Stop inviting her out to dinner. She might be agreeing to go with you because she’s embarrassed to say no. “It could be extremely uncomfortable to decline because of financial reasons. Who doesn’t enjoy going out for dinner? Invite her over for a home cooked meal,” Jorie says.

As for the gifts for your cousins, I agree that it’s annoying. But as long as you’re not buying wedding gifts that are twice as expensive to cover her portion, will it kill you to sign her name?

Ask yourself this: Would she do it for you if the tables were turned? If the answer is no, then stop signing her name. But if she would do it for her, have her back and let her save some face in front of your extended family.

But when it comes to gifts for your parents, try a different approach.

It seems like if your parents are loaning her money, they are pretty comfortable financially (if they’re not, write back because that’s a different situation). The next time there’s a family birthday or holiday, tell her you’re making a gift. Send her a link to a DIY web site with a note like “Mom would love x.” If she tries to sponge off your gift, you’ll have to flat out say no. If she doesn’t make her own, then we know one of two things:

  • Your sister is missing a sensitivity chip.
  • Your sister is experiencing depression.

Experts say that many of the long-term unemployed experience bouts of depression. Is she exhibiting signs of depression (sadness, lack of energy, loss of interest in activities she once enjoyed, insomnia and irritability)? If so, don’t turn your back on her now.

Instead of bonding with her over meals, force her to join you on a walk or run. Research has shown that exercise boosts mental health.   Make sure she knows she’s not alone, or at fault for her situation. There are several online unemployment support groups so she can meet others in her situation.

As annoying as this is for you, the daily stress of not knowing how she’ll pay for her rent, much less a gift or dinner out, is worse for her.

Do you pick up the tab for unemployed friends and family? Let us know in a comment.

Published or updated on May 5, 2014

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About Patty Lamberti

Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at moneymannersqs@gmail.com.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Emily says:

    Not too off the mark, though I agree with the above commenter. Enabling a family member because of good intentions doesn’t help them in the long run. Ever heard of learned helplessness? I commend the sister for looking for work, but if she’s truly depressed, dinners out may foster resentment…

  2. As the often un or under employed friend, I don’t commit to events I can’t afford on my own. If that means opting out of a dinner or party, even a wedding, so be it. It’s not fair to put the financial burden on someone else. I always try to recommend frugal alternatives so I can still have a social life.

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