Do you think parents should provide financial assistance to their adult children? If so, do you think they should do so equally or is it okay for them to favor one child financially? Is financial inequality a sign of parents who favor one child over another or a sign of parental favoritism? How do you feel about parents giving more money to one child than another?
Every month or so these questions pop into my inbox and each time they do I pause, reflect on my thoughts and respond as openly and honestly as possible. Over the years my opinions have changed immensely. As my children grow, as I watch their tiny personalities unfold and as I think about their financial futures my views twist and change in unexpected ways.
The first set of questions arrived as an email six years ago. A slew of letters have followed since that time including one I received just two days ago.
Why do they keep coming and what do readers hope to gain by reaching out to me? The answers may surprise you.
Favoring One Child Financially
Six years ago I spent an entire weekend watching a close family member deal with the saga of sibling rivalry and financial favoritism. Wrestling with my own thoughts on the matter I wrote a short post about parents who continually give one child more money than another.
To be clear I’m not talking about a grown child with emotional or physical hardships. For the purpose of this discussion let’s focus on families with two healthy adult children who have similar capabilities and intelligence.
The story plays out in families everywhere. One child studies hard, works hard, saves his money and succeeds in life. From the disciplined sibling’s perspective the other child plays hard, has fun and struggles to pay his or her bills.
The parents fill in the gap between the second sibling’s income and the life he or she wants to lead. As the days turn into months and years the depth of financial inequality grows.
As the scale tips in favor of one child over another the resentment between siblings builds. When the emotional toll becomes unbearable relationships begin to break apart.
Heart Wrenching Reader Stories
It’s been many years since I first wrote that post, but the old date doesn’t deter readers from reaching out to me. Every few months I receive a heartfelt email from someone who stumbled across that post feeling broken and defeated.
I am not a trained psychologist. I’m just a blogger who writes about money. I read those words and provide my opinion when readers ask for it. We often correspond multiple times. Some people are able to release their bitterness while others are unable to move on.
After years of reading those letters I felt the need to revisit this topic. I hope that others will stumble upon this new post and find an outlet to express their thoughts and feelings.
Example One: A Tale of Two Siblings
Let’s discuss a hypothetical scenario. Let’s imagine two biological children grow up in the same household and are raised by the same parents. The first child is a ‘go-getter.’ He works hard in school, graduates on time and secures a decent job after college. As the years wear on his salary increases. This sibling earns money and saves. He doesn’t live an extravagant life by any means. He eats at home, drives old cars and vacations close to home.
The second child does not take advantage of his opportunities. He fails out of college and begins working at a lower starting salary than his brother. He is happy to spend his money as freely as he earns it and consistently chooses the pricier car, house and vacations.
In this scenario should the parents provide money to the second child?
Example Two: A Tale of Two Siblings
Now let’s discuss a second scenario. Let’s imagine two daughters are raised in the same household by the same parents. This time the older child chooses a career in engineering while the other chooses a career in teaching. Again the first child can afford the items she desires. The second child cannot.
In this case, should the parents provide financial assistance to the younger sister in the form of sports equipment, summer vacations and a down payment on a house or new car?
What Do You Think?
If you were the parent in these examples would you offer the child with a lower salary financial assistance? Did you answer the same way for Example One as you did for Example Two or did the details of the story cause you to react differently?
Would you be willing to give more money to one child than another? If you are willing to offer your adult children money you are not alone. Nearly 75% of parents are helping their children financially.
Now what if you were the successful sibling in one of these scenarios? How would you feel if your parents provided your brother or sister with a handful of cash, but didn’t offer you any?
Parents Giving More To One Child
These are not fictitious stories. They are real world examples emailed to me by readers. Readers who are upset with their parent’s decision to favor one child financially.
Why do readers email me? First, they feel strange discussing this topic in the real world. It’s one of those dirty money problems no one wants to talk about. Second, they worry that others may perceive them as being greedy. When they discuss the situation in real life people tell them to keep their nose out of their parent’s business. They say, “You have everything you need. Why are you asking for equality? Things aren’t equal now. You can pay for your own stuff. Why do you want more?”
Many of you will agree with those sentiments. You are reading this post thinking “get over it” or “stop complaining” or quite frankly “it’s the parents’ money they can do whatever they want with it.” If you have those feelings you were probably raised in a balanced family where you felt appreciated and loved.
I have never dealt with financial inequality in my own family, but I have witnessed it many times through extended family members and friends. In all of those cases the favoritism was extensive. It was not isolated to finances alone.
Sibling Financial Favoritism
The truth is money issues are almost never about the math. The successful siblings in these relationships often talk about money, balance ledgers, inheritances, wills and other financial jargon. This makes them appear greedy and selfish, but in reality this isn’t about money. The anger is rooted more deeply in complex family dynamics.
In many cases the pain extends back through childhood. It involves sibling rivalries that began when they were small. It stems from the belief that their parents love their sibling more. As kids they may measure their parents affection in hugs and kisses. As adults these children grow up to measure love in dollars and cents. The idea of sibling financial favoritism weighs heavily upon them. It occupies their thoughts and leaves them feeling hurt and unloved.
Some of you are wondering, “Why would the successful sibling feel jealous of financial inequality between his or her parents and their sibling? If the child is financially stable why would they care if their sibling is given money?”
The reasons are complex.
Complex Feelings: Jealousy and Anger
Here is an example: One reader spoke at length about wanting to become an artist. Rather than pursuing her dreams she decided to get a job as an accountant. She chose a stable, well paid profession so she wouldn’t have to worry about paying her bills.
In contrast, her sister studied writing and dreamed of becoming a novelist. While she wrote books her parents paid for her food and housing. The ‘successful’ sibling was miserable. She constantly wondered what her life might have been like if she had chosen to pursue her passions. If she knew her parents would foot the bill she would have chosen a different profession just like her sister.
Keep in mind that success is not measured by the size of your bank account. Also remember that the ability to pay your bills may not leave you feeling happy and fulfilled.
The same goes for many other readers who talk about working at jobs they hate while their siblings work in fulfilling careers. They trudge off to work, while their lower paid siblings live off their parents subsidies. In the back of their minds they wonder if their siblings are favored by their parents. If they quit their jobs would their parents support them? Most of the people who write to me believe their parents wouldn’t give them a dime.
It’s easy to feel jealous of a sibling that seems to get whatever they want. Your brother or sister may work in a fulling career with high job satisfaction while you stare miserably at the side of a cubicle all afternoon.
It makes some adult children cry out, “It’s not fair!” Sure we all know life isn’t fair, but when the inequality stems from within the family unit it can be harder to bear.
Some of my readers are mistaken for crying about greed. One reader said she didn’t really want the money. She wanted her family to recognize that she didn’t have an amazing life. They kept telling her she had everything and to feel grateful, but she was horribly unhappy in her stable job and struggling to pay her bills.
She said, “My sister has it so easy. She works in a job she loves and my parents foot the other bills.”
Defining and Judging Needs
Many of the readers who write to me live within their means. They carefully weigh their wants and needs. Many of them drive old cars and live in smaller houses while they watch their parents pay for new cars or bigger homes for their siblings.
They tell me their siblings convince their parents they need expensive sporting equipment or pricey sleep away camps for their children, while the more disciplined siblings buy used products and forgo camp for their kids.
Their definition of the term ‘needs’ differs greatly from their siblings and their parents. They want their parents to say, “no, you don’t need that pricey stuff’ and they feel hurt when that doesn’t happen.
Helping Financially Irresponsible Siblings
I have not experienced financial inequality from my own parents, but I have witnessed it many times via extended family members.
Conflict seems to arise when one sibling perceives the other as not trying hard enough in life. Readers say things like: If I work hard, stay on track and save my money I can afford a house in a nice community. If my sibling does not do these things do they ‘deserve’ the same life that I live? Do we not make choices in our life and have to live by the choices we made? What about the sacrifices I have made to achieve my goals?
If I choose to become a software engineer than I may earn a lot, but I might not enjoy my job. In that case money wins over enjoyment. If my sibling chooses to become an artist they may love their job but not be able to afford a house in a nice community.
I believe resentment grows when a sibling sees their counterpart getting the best of both worlds; a life they enjoy and financial success (in the form of money from their parents).
Similarly if a child goes through his late teens and early twenties enjoying life and running up debt, while another sibling settles into a career and starts working, is it really fair to even the financial score.
That sibling had the time of his life and ends up right on track with their sibling who had to work hard and make a way in their lives for themselves. Resentment breeds when perception says “I didn’t enjoy the last ten years the way my sibling did and now we are on equal ground.”
How to Deal with Financial Unfairness from Parents
If you are struggling to cope with your emotions consider seeking advice from a therapist or counselor.
If you feel hurt by your parents decision to provide unequal financial gifts ask yourself why you are upset. What really bothers you about your parents giving more money to one child? Is it really about the money or is there something deeper to explore about your relationships?
Begin by accepting your feelings for what they are not for what others tell you they should be. It’s easy for someone else, (not in your shoes), to say, “I wouldn’t be upset or feel angry.” Good for them. They are not you. You have a right to your feelings. Embrace them so you can move on and don’t let anyone shame you for the way you feel.
You have to accept the situation for what it is and try not to let the negative feelings overwhelm you. At the end of the day you have absolutely no control over the way your parents dole out their money, so your best action is not to brood over the fact that you feel like you are being treated unfairly.
If you are able to pay your bills then the good news is that you don’t need your parents money. You made it on your own. You can count the blessings in your life and focus on the positive things that surround you. Do you have a good relationship with your spouse or significant other? Are the people in your life healthy and strong?
I know that this won’t make up for the injustice you feel, but the truth is you have little to no say in the matter. If your brother or sister is willing to put his or her hand out for money your parents will continue supplying them with gifts. This will probably continue for most if not all of their adult lives. Since the situation is unlikely to go away your best option is to do your best to look beyond it.
If you are unhappy with your current life search for ways to make it better. Learn about financial independence and strive to pursue your goals.
Take Pride in Your Success
Be thankful for all that you have accomplished in life. Look around at your successes, write them down and read that list to yourself regularly. You are in control of your life and your finances. Pat yourself on the back for that, because many people are not in the same situation.
Recognize that your parents may continue to enable your sibling. As a result your brother or sister may continue to make the wrong choices and to act carelessly at times. Talk to them if you feel it will help, but recognize in most instances they don’t want your advice and most likely won’t change their ways.
Accept the discrepancies. In all likelihood your parents will not be able to even the score. Your parents are probably not keeping a ledger of payments and in reality they may not be able to ‘even the score.’ Don’t lay your hopes on receiving more money upon their death. That’s just creepy, plus for all you know they will outlive you. Don’t waste your time on this Earth waiting to see what happens when someone dies. Make peace with the situation as it stands right now!
I realize this is all easier said then done. Believe me, I do, but in time it does get better if you change your frame of mind. Once you know you can’t do anything about it you can stop carrying the bitterness around with you.
Sibling Harmony and Balance
I hope to provide equal gifts to my own children, but as they are only four and seven I really have no idea what their lives will entail. My plan is to talk to them about financial decisions and to make certain that hurt feelings are avoided as often possible. I hope to openly discuss our thoughts and ensure that communication remains open as much as possible along the way.
My mom served as a great example for me. I am forever grateful for the harmony she created in our family and thankful that my brother and I could coexist as equals. As children neither of us suffered from emotional or physical hardships, which certainly made it easier to balance our needs.
Still I don’t want to diminish my mom’s efforts. She worked tirelessly to ensure her time, attention, love and money were split equally. As a mom of two children I know that’s harder to accomplish than it sounds.
Unfortunately, this balance isn’t always easy to achieve. Family dynamics are complicated and unresolved conflicts between siblings and parents can fester and grow well into adulthood. Add in the additional complexity of money and the lines between love and loved ones can easily blur.
Sibling Balance: My Story
My own memory of familial balance came at the age of four or five.
“Am I your favorite?,” I asked my mom as I climbed into her lap just before bedtime. I was sleepy from a long day of activities and in need of extra reassurance and love.
My mom’s expression grew soft. I paused quietly so she could answer. She looked down at me with her big brown eyes, pulled the hair away from my brow and spoke without hesitation. She didn’t have to ponder the question or think of an appropriate answer. “You know I love you and your brother equally,” she said. Her response felt like a simple fact; a truth that cannot be denied.
She gently cusped my face within her hands and planted a kiss upon my forehead. In that moment I wholeheartedly believed her. To this day I still do.
I hope one day my children can say the same. I know we all do.