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Grandma Needs Money. Now What?

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My grandmother recently, and reluctantly, asked if I could give her some money.

There’s no question my wife, Amy, and I will give her the funds; she raised me and is, by and large, the woman I consider my mom. She has always been kind to Amy. If we have the discretionary cash that can make my grandmother’s life happy, shouldn’t we hand it over?

Yet the request has caused us a lot of angst.

Part of our concern is where this will lead. Although my grandmother isn’t asking for a lot of money — just a few hundred dollars — when you open your wallet to family members, the first time is rarely the last. We don’t want to get in the position of becoming my grandmother’s ATM.

But it’s more than that. Amy and I have worked hard to earn this money, and it’s frustrating to have somebody want to tap into our account. What’s more, my grandmother will no doubt use the money for things that we’d never buy ourselves. We don’t want to feel like suckers for funding a lifestyle that we might consider indulgent.

So that leads us to the question we’ve been grappling with: When providing financial assistance to a family member, is it fair to say the money comes with constraints on how it is spent? Or, is financial assistance an exercise in unconditional love?

* * *

Let me say it at the outset: I don’t believe children bear an obligation to their parents as a cost of having been raised by those parents. Bringing a child into the world is a parent’s choice, not the child’s. Thus, the obligations that do exist run from parent to child, not in reverse.

That said, I certainly feel a desire to assist my grandmother out of a sense of love and caring. She also has always been careful with money — in terms of both spending and saving. And she and my grandfather obviously weren’t my birth parents, but they did choose to raise me.

Still, loving and understanding don’t necessarily erase the questions that inevitably arise when family members seek funding. In particular: Why do you need this money? And how are you spending the money you do have?

If you, the giver, don’t agree with how the person spends his or her money, do you have a right to impose your restrictions? Do you have a right to tell someone to change his or her spending habits in order to get any money from you?

One of my longtime friends, who’s providing financial support for her two sisters, says no.

She’s helping one sister pay off thousands of dollars of credit-card debt. “I’ve talked to her about managing her money,” my friend says, “and the need to stop relying on credit, but I would never tell her how to spend her money.”

With the other sister, my friend is paying more than $200 a month for cable and Internet access, cellphone charges and a cleaning service. She’s also considering sending her a few hundred dollars each month for spending money, again with no stipulations about how the cash is spent.

In both cases, my friend says that the offerings are acts of love, and that while she may not necessarily agree with how the money is ultimately spent, each sister “obviously has different spending priorities.” Moreover, she adds, using that money to shop, go to lunch or spend on a friend “are really positive things in a personal life, and I would never deny my sisters that just because their choices may not mirror my own spending priorities.”

“Giving money,” she concludes, “doesn’t give me the right to impose my views on how it’s spent.”

* * *

I admit that I am not as reflexively selfless as my friend. When my grandmother asked for money, I immediately started thinking about her spending that I consider wasteful. She regularly pays for brunch for herself and friends, and frequently hosts parties for friends. If she didn’t do these things, I thought, she wouldn’t need my money. And while I don’t mind paying for my grandmother’s brunch, I don’t particularly want to treat her friends.

But as I talked to a friend about it, I realized that a grandson’s idea of waste is a grandmother’s idea of pleasure. Who am I to consider her parties wasteful, any more than somebody else might consider my dining out or trips to a casino wasteful? Unless the spending is egregious, it seems unfair to impose my standards on someone else’s life.

On top of that, giving her the money with the stipulation that she only use it on herself would rob her of a big piece of her happiness. And what’s the point of giving her money if it only reminds her of what she cannot do?

So, after much thought, here’s where I am: I can’t deny that the dollars I will give to my grandmother will be tossed away on expenses that will make me cringe. I can’t deny that if the money requests continue, things might change.

But for the moment, at least, my grandmother’s happiness wins out. I will give her the money and say nothing.

Jeff Opdyke covers personal finance for The Wall Street Journal.

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