My Best Friend Is Bad With Money. Should I Tell His Traveling Companions?

My best friend has a history of financial ruin. He has unpaid college loans at the age of 50. If he has a credit card, he runs it up to the limit as soon as possible. He owned a business that went bankrupt after two years, leaving the investors holding the bag. He has a low-six-figure salary, consumed by payments on his debts. Now he is telling me he plans to join a group of very affluent friends (he pays his way on his infinite charm and good looks) to visit several countries in Europe this summer. He will be traveling with cash only. Because of his lousy credit rating, he won’t have a credit card.

Should I try to convince him to do the prudent thing and decline the trip? (“I love you, but you really can’t afford this.”) Or should I confidentially warn his fellow travelers — his best (nonromantic) girlfriend is also on the trip — that he might crash and burn, or at least be a nuisance with his “special needs” payment transactions? Money and friendship can be a bitter cocktail. — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Your friend has a serious problem that he ought to address. A financial therapist, who combines coaching about managing one’s finances with psychotherapy to try to unseat these bad habits, might be able to help. You should keep trying to help, too. Given that you know so much about your friend’s financial misadventures, I assume you’ve talked to him about them and offered supportive suggestions for reform. So tell him that if he can afford a fancy European vacation, he can afford a few sessions with a therapist. And yes, you can ask whether it’s wise to spend all this money when he has debts to pay.

If he’s undeterred, you can urge him to inform his companions — at least those, like his woman friend, whom he’s close to — that he’s traveling without a credit card, not least because they will have been forewarned if they end up having to come to his rescue. Because it’s hard to make hotel reservations without a credit card, he’ll presumably be staying in rooms they’ve paid for. (If he has cash at hand, though, why doesn’t he take a prepaid card?) Still, he may find ways of running up a tab.

But warning his prospective traveling companions behind his back? That isn’t how a good friend should behave. A likely result is that you won’t be his friend anymore. Besides, your aside about how he pays his way could be more significant than you realize. The fact that the other travelers are “very affluent” suggests they may not mind much if your friend mooches off them, content that his beguiling bonhomie will make for a jollier grand tour. “I’m a very charming sponge,” Max Detweiler says in “The Sound of Music,” and — let’s face it — the charming sponge is a familiar social type. A furtive effort to derail his plans may leave you the one drinking that bitter cocktail, and it won’t be at the Piazza San Marco.

Readers Respond

The previous column’s question was from a reader who was uncomfortable lying to her young children about Santa Claus. She wrote: “I’m a parent of two small children, the eldest of whom is 2½ years old. … When I became a parent, I vowed I would be as truthful with my own children as possible, acknowledging that even small children are worthy of the respect I would afford another adult. And the elaborate undertaking of “becoming” Santa Claus is one of the very few instances I would ever be faced with of keeping up a ruse; in other words, this is no one-time fib. … Other parents tell me they see engaging in the fantasy of Santa Claus as an important, fun part of childhood, and a rite of passage to one day discover the truth. So why can’t I help feeling that I’d be undermining the honest and trusting relationship I seek to build with my children?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “When parents talk to their young children about the Midnight Sleigher, there’s typically a glint in their eye, and a certain amount of mugging. And so, when their children figure out that Santa is an imaginary character, they can feel as if they’re finally in on the game, not as if they’ve been cruelly betrayed. They may themselves, on some level, have chosen to prolong the pretense — and not ask hard questions about the likelihood of heavy-hooved mammals flying through the sky or a fat man squeezing through narrow chimneys beyond number. … Only parents who are feeling the Santa spirit should be in the Santa business. For you, it would be an uncharacteristic performance, a source not of merriment but of a knotted stomach. You won’t enjoy it, and your kids will end up confused. So, when your elder kid asks about the guy with the beard and the belly, you can simply say, ‘I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but millions do.’”

(Reread the full question and answer here.)

The Ethicist’s response was very well thought out and sensitive to the letter writer’s dilemma. We also struggled with figuring out how we could always be truthful with our children yet still tell them this lie. In the end, we decided it was less of a lie and more of a story, and a story that children love. Plus, we didn’t want our kids to be the ones who ruined it for all the others! Kimberly

I don’t disagree with the Ethicist’s response, though I’m not sure I would tell a very young child that I don’t believe in something though others do. I think that might lead to more questions that would be difficult to answer. Their world is a bit more straightforward and that nuanced answer might be more confusing than helpful. I supported my youngest daughter’s belief until she started to question it, at around 6 or 7. When she asked me if what her classmates, sibling and cousins were saying was true, I read her the New York Sun’s wonderful and classic response to Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter asking whether Santa Claus existed, from 1897. We then had an age-appropriate conversation about myth, imagination and reality. She asked questions and I answered them as best I could. I think that acknowledging that it was, in fact, a story, and talking about it kept my shattering the illusion from becoming a betrayal. Anne

I agree that deceiving children is not a good idea. I’d like my grandchildren to know they can trust my word. So, when my 7-year-old granddaughter asked me if I believed in Santa Claus, I simply said I had never met or seen the man. She was satisfied with that answer. I realize that I sidestepped the question, but the answer was completely honest. Richard

I’m a child and family therapist and I have also struggled to figure out how to handle the Santa Claus thing. I chose to answer my daughter’s questions about Santa by making a distinction between real and pretend: “Santa is a story, and lots of people like to pretend he is real and you can too.” If she wants to play the game, she can, but otherwise she has a sense of the conceit. My husband and other family aren’t entirely on board, but I can’t force them to comply with my wishes in all areas of parenting. Still, the language of “pretend” is forgiving. Chloe

In defense of not continuing or even starting a Santa story, if your children understand that gifts come from people, and not from Santa, you can also involve them in the giving end of Christmas, so that from a young age they give presents to parents and siblings, as well as receive them. That’s a worthy approach, too. Caroline

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