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The Moneyist

Aug. 21, 2022, 9:09 a.m. EDT

‘I have committed financial infidelity’: I racked up $50,000 in debt to help my troubled son — and have not told my husband. How do I get out of this mess?

By Quentin Fottrell

Dear Quentin,

I have committed financial infidelity. This is a second marriage, and one of my sons is unstable and a substance user. He has stolen from us in the past, and two of his children are now living with him. 

He doesn’t work, is on public assistance, and demands money from me. He gets very abusive when I don’t give it to him. This is the second time I have gone into debt behind my husband’s back. 

I worry about my grandchildren, where they will live when my son can’t pay rent, how they will study without internet access and more. I have been subjected to a tremendous amount of emotional abuse by this son. 

I feel like a worthless human being. My husband has zero respect for my son and refuses to help unless it goes directly to the kids (clothing, sports fees, school supplies, etc.).

I am $50,000 in debt and he has no idea. I have stopped the bleeding, but it is far too late. My husband is retired. I work part time, but I am thinking of returning to work full time to pay off the debt. Can I file for bankruptcy separately? 

We live a modest life. I need to tell him. I am ashamed of my actions, and fear he will leave me. We are in our 70s. I have probably destroyed my life and his because I gave in to my son’s harassment and abuse.

Distraught Mother & Wife

Dear Distraught,

The first thing you need to do is stop catastrophizing. You have not destroyed your life. You made some bad decisions, which came from a good place, but you understand that you were manipulated and bullied. However, you are taking accountability for those actions, willing to come clean, and prepared to do what you need to fix this. 

It may not feel like it, but self-pity and ego are two sides of the same coin. Punishing yourself over and over is not an act of sacrifice and humility, but a way of escalating and prolonging the drama. When you are feeling sorry for yourself, the spotlight is still firmly on you. You need to shine the spotlight on the solutions instead. 

Feelings of unworthiness may have led you down this rabbit hole and allowed your son to emotionally blackmail you into giving him thousands of dollars, but languishing in this place will only lead to more self-pity and inaction. It’s time to tell your husband the truth, and what you are prepared to do to fix the situation. Get a full-time job. Start looking now.

It is possible to file bankruptcy as a separate individual, but it becomes more complicated when you jointly have debts and own an asset like a family home. But for $50,000, I don’t advise you going down this route. It will destroy your credit rating, and potentially cause more stress and financial problems for you and your husband. Work off the debt.

If your son has leaned on you in the past, he will do so again. You need the support of both your husband and a therapist (or a financial therapist ) to navigate this. No means no. There will be no more funds. He will use his children as leverage. You could — with the cooperation of your husband — take in his children, but you can’t afford to keep enabling him.

Put a freeze on your credit reports with the three major agencies to make it more difficult for you to take out any more credit-card debt. Tell your husband. The more decisions you make unilaterally and in secret, the more damage you will do to your marriage and your financial future. Your husband’s retirement and financial future is linked to yours.

Work out how long it will take you to pay off this debt, and commit to that. Reduce your spending and stick to a budget. It will make you feel good to pay it off. It will be a good exercise in doing something for yourself, and when you reach your final payment, it will help your self-confidence. Fight for your marriage, and your financial and emotional independence. 

There are support groups out there for parents of troubled children, and 12-step programs like Al-Anon that help people such as yourself who have been impacted by family members with substance-abuse problems. To paraphrase one of their mottos: “You didn’t create your son’s problems, you’re not responsible for them and you can’t cure them.” He is an adult, and must take accountability for his own life.

And never let anyone have that kind of power over you again.

Learn how to shake up your financial routine at the Best New Ideas in Money Festival on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in New York. Join Carrie Schwab, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.

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