The unique difficulty of setting financial boundaries in BIPOC families

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Setting boundaries with family can be a fraught affair, and all the more so if those boundaries are money-related. You might worry that Venmo-ing your younger cousin every month is only enabling their bad spending habits and damaging your own financial health, but you also don’t want to hurt their feelings or disrupt the family dynamic by cutting them off. Growing up in a BIPOC and/or immigrant family adds yet another layer of complexity to this scenario. I can speak to the sense of indebtedness us second-generation Americans can feel toward our immigrant parents, which can make asserting any boundaries with them, financial or otherwise, especially thorny.

How can people from BIPOC and immigrant communities set financial boundaries with family members? I reached out to Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a biracial financial therapist committed to actively decolonizing her work, for insight into traversing this tricky terrain.

To be clear, financial boundaries can become fuzzy in white and non-immigrant families, too, says Bryan-Podvin, who’s based in Michigan. Low-income folx, whether BIPOC or white, are more likely to lend money to family members.

These caveats aside, “it comes back to survival, and when we think about BIPOC families… oftentimes we survive in groups,” Bryan-Podvin tells me. It might be easy for non-BIPOC to dismiss the lending that so often happens in our families as a sign of terrible boundaries, and even second- and third-generation Americans might raise an eyebrow when they see parents or grandparents constantly sending money to their relatives.

But “those tendencies” — connected to communal living, support, and survival — “ended up there for a reason,” Bryan-Podvin says. Setting a financial boundary can signify a break from this deeply ingrained pattern, making it more drastic than setting a similar boundary in a white or upper middle-class family.

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Realize that support is linked to survival

Likewise, in immigrant families, “money is often not this kind of invisible thing,” Bryan-Podvin explains. “It’s a very real tool for survival.” Having fuzzy boundaries around sharing it can also aid survival, especially for those who arrived with little money of their own. In the Philippines, where my mom emigrated from, remittances from family members in the diaspora often pay for food and other necessities. If my mom hadn’t regularly wired money to her family back home, especially during her first few years in the U.S., her siblings couldn’t have afforded to eat or attend school.

Bryan-Podvin adds that immigrant families “tend to be your super savers,” and her second-generation clients often tell her about their parents saving every little thing, and urging them to eat all the food on their plates. “Again, it comes from a potential trauma response,” she says, one she also sees in refugee and Jewish families. “They tend to store all their nuts for winter when it comes to money because that protected them in the past.”

As a result, immigrant parents might have fuzzy boundaries around judging their children for making big purchases or eating out, even if they’re already adults, sometimes even reminding them of the sacrifices they made for them. Luckily, my parents never guilt-tripped me in this way, but they did raise me to repurpose plastic bags and food containers, and avoid spending as much as possible, so they’ve occasionally balked at my purchases, even if I’d made sure to budget for them.

Trust your instinct

How do you know when it’s time to set a financial boundary with a family member? “We often know in our gut if something feels wrong,” Bryan-Podvin says. Your immigrant parents’ reminders to pack leftovers from the dinner you had with them might make you roll your eyes at most. But if they ask for a fraction of your paycheck to send to your distant cousin, you might have a weird gut feeling — usually a good sign that you need to set a boundary. The same applies if you feel guilt, resentment, or worry that your family member’s request has strings attached, whether in the moment, or after a transaction that’s already occurred.

I’ve experienced this weird gut feeling a few times, when my parents have asked me to spot various relatives, and I didn’t feel like I could do so without taking a considerable financial hit myself. But I never knew how to set boundaries in these situations, which were layered. For starters, my parents had sacrificed so much to secure opportunities for me that had remained out of reach for them, that I felt too guilty to tell them “no,” as a general rule.

The strong sense of family loyalty they’d instilled in me from an early age also made me hesitant to assert myself. “Friends come and go,” they’d say, “but your family will always stand by you.” This mindset might’ve helped them when they immigrated, and they pretty much only had each other, but didn’t mesh with my lived experience in the very comfort they’d worked so hard to build for me.

Communicate clearly

Bryan-Podvin has actionable advice that I can use next time I need to set financial boundaries with my family. She suggests “the complaint sandwich.” Say that your parent always asks you to send money to your cousin. Start with something positive, like “Dad, I love you that you care so much about your family.” Next, set your boundary: “It’s no longer something I’m able to do.” Finally, end on a positive note, such as, “I’ll still remember to call and text him,” showing that you’ll continue to care for your family in another, non-monetary way.

Timing matters, too. If your family’s New Year gathering always ends in drama, call whoever tends to be involved to set your boundary a day or two beforehand, rather than waiting until emotions peak, and you both risk saying something regrettable, Bryan-Podvin says. Tell them about how it gets tense when they bring up your new job or your partner’s income, for instance, and ask them not to go there this time.

Follow through

The thing with setting a boundary is, you often need to do it more than once, especially since your family will likely see it as a personal slight, Bryan-Podvin tells me. Emphasize that it’s not about them, but an action in which you can no longer participate. “You also don’t have to overexplain,” even if they keep demanding an explanation. “You can simply say, ‘I’m sorry this hurts. I can tell you’re upset, and I’m not changing my mind.’”

Don’t engage with any relatives who might blow up the fam group text to try to convince you to budge on your boundary upon hearing that you’ve set it, Bryan-Podvin adds. Tell them this is a conversation between you and said family member, and you’d prefer to keep it that way.

Because guilt and other difficult emotions make me dread setting financial boundaries with my family, I ask Bryan-Podvin how to manage them. “I think one thing to keep in mind is that boundaries can be flexible,” she says. Although she had to set firm boundaries with her family in her early 20s, she relaxed them as time went on, and she got more comfortable in her own skin.

Being the first in your family to set a financial boundary is especially tough. That’s why enlisting someone to back you up, whether a sibling or S.O., is key, Bryan-Podvin says. Even a friend who doesn’t mind listening to you vent can help. Know that you needn’t go at it alone, and that so many of us can relate.