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Family Bondsman

When you’ve borrowed money from your rich brother-in-law

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

Life has recently delivered me a series of swift kicks in the posterior. I’m in my twenties, living at home, and working a soul-crushing temp job that pays me a comically small amount of money. I’m doing my best to save what little I make so that I can go back to school to pursue my master’s—and eventually move my life into a place where the business end of a rifle doesn’t look quite so appealing. I spend almost no money on anything, except my car, which I need because I live in suburbia and being carless would make it virtually impossible to work. After coughing up the money for my car payment and insurance, buying gas to get to and from the aforementioned crap job, and kicking in a little bit for groceries I have maybe sixty or seventy dollars left over at the end of the month.

Here’s the issue: my brother in law—let’s call him Joe—works in a prominent role for a major telecom company. When my previous phone stopped working Joe generously offered to put me on an additional line on his phone plan, which he gets at a steep discount, and helped finance my new phone. At the time my financial circumstances were slightly less dire than they are at the moment. Nearly a year of unemployment later I’m pretty much dead broke, and I’m hundreds of dollars behind on what I owe Joe for my phone service.

Joe is clear that he wants me to start paying him back now that I am once again gainfully employed. My parents have basically made said repayment a condition for my staying under their roof, so I don’t have much choice but to use my meager disposable income to service my debt to Joe.

Joe makes in half an hour what I make in a month.

My question is, am I right to feel wronged in this situation? My family seems to think I’m the asshole here. If Joe even remotely needed the money, I would certainly feel guilty, but the fact is that both he and my sister have incomes in the six figures and live a fairly lavish lifestyle. Joe makes in half an hour what I make in a month. Am I crazy to think that the principle of keeping your word to a family member is somewhat less important than the fact that I need every dollar to survive and to save toward my future, while this money is a drop in an overflowing bucket for Joe? In other situations where a creditor is demanding money they don’t really need from a debtor who will be pushed into abject misery as a result, I tend to side unequivocally with the debtor. I’d obviously be happy to pay Joe back at some point in the future when I’m not quite so stretched for cash. On the other hand, I can see an argument that I should never have agreed to this arrangement in the first place knowing I might not be able to pay, and Joe was doing me favor in setting this up. I’ve seriously considered disconnecting my phone, but unfortunately it’s a necessity if I want any chance at job that is less odious than my current one. Help me out here: am I in the wrong for feeling resentful of the whole situation?


The Poor Relative


Dear Poor Relative,

Your brother-in-law is a cheap bastard. It is my own personal belief that the proper attitudes toward “lending” money—provided you any have available to lend—is to consider it gone and enjoy the pleasant surprise if and when it ever comes back to you. Others may be less profligate in their lending practices, but at the very least, ethical lenders aren’t going to hold you over a barrel for money they aren’t in immediate need of. You are not wrong for feeling resentful; a little bit of class resentment is in fact a healthy and logical response to financial woes. If you didn’t feel resentful, it suggests you don’t see yourself as a part of an exploitative capitalist system, which is the basis for class consciousness.

Your brother-in-law is a cheap bastard.

All this said, the question is what to do with those feelings. You’re probably not going to guilt the cheapskate into a change of heart, or even into cutting you any slack, so confrontation with him directly is likely best avoided. Appealing to your sister or your parents  would likely be equally futile. Make sure you vent to some sympathetic people now and then, but keep your resentment from your family as long as they still have your name in the ledger; otherwise you’re going to end up embroiled in the sort of tension and conflict that will only stress you out more.

Know that you’re justified in your feelings, but don’t dwell on them, or let bitterness or hostility seep in. Grit your teeth, power through, and keep the future in mind, because you will pay this off someday. And someday you will also be in a position to lend to someone who needs it too, and you will handle it differently.

And if you feel your anger and frustration starting to wear you down, allow yourself a little bit of revenge fantasy.

Maybe someday after all your debts are paid off, you’ll be at a family dinner. Maybe the topic of debt will just come up in the conversation—you would never bring it up of course; you’re far too dignified for that. Maybe your brother-in-law, feeling smug about what he considers his altruism and his sensible mind for business, will bring up the loan he gave you so long ago. And maybe, just maybe, you will be able to say, “It’s certainly better to be the lender these days.”

And maybe this will lead into an inquiry as to your own lending habits, and your brother-in-law will scoff at your spendthrift naivete. 

And maybe, just maybe, you will have the organic opportunity to turn to him, give him a warm but pitying smile, and quietly say, “I guess I just don’t want to be like you.”