I am in a tough moral situation and I don’t know what to do. My older sister and brother-in-law have been fighting about money for the past year or so. He is a big spender, not just for himself, but for the whole family, friends, and community.
While they make enough money to cover their debt and pay off their credit cards every month, it is still an issue. My brother-in-law would often hide and lie about his spending, and even would put my teenage niece and nephew in the middle by asking them to cover for him. After receiving an unexpected amount of money, he surprised my sister with a new $60,000 car and matching vehicle for himself.
My niece made me promise not to tell my sister if she told me something bad. She told me that her dad, my brother-in-law, has a secret credit card that my sister doesn’t know about. He flashes it in front of my niece and nephew’s friends.
After this crazy situation, my sister laid down some new rules to try to keep her marriage and finances together. She recently told me that things were going OK. She was keyed into all of the spending with access to online accounts and better visibility to credit-card spending and accounts. She thought that there was still room for improvement, but the marriage and spending were doing better and she felt like the lying was in control.
I was with my niece this week, and she made me promise not to tell my sister if she told me something bad. I, of course, thought it was some teenage drama so I agreed, hoping that I could give her advice. I was wrong. She told me that her dad, my brother-in-law, has a secret credit card that my sister doesn’t know about. He flashes it in front of my niece and nephew’s friends, uses it constantly, and is insistent that no one tells my sister.
I don’t want to break my niece’s trust, but I feel like my sister needs to know about this. I am worried that this type of financial infidelity could end their 20-plus year marriage. Is there a way that I can help her discover the card without being the one to overtly blab? If he has a credit card under his name only, is there a way she can find out? I want my niece to be able to trust that she can come to me with tough things in her life, but my sister is my best friend, and I am so torn.
Any advice you have would be very much appreciated. Thank you.
Confused Sister In Law
Your brother-in-law is an addict. He gets a kick out of spending money, lavishing others with gifts, and putting his family’s finances at risk in the process. There may even be a part of him that wants to get caught. It sounds that way, at least. Flashing his credit cards to friends and family is not the best way to keep this credit-card spending going. It’s the thrill of buying stuff, and the risk of getting caught that appear to keep him going.
If he wasn’t getting himself and his family into debt, he would likely find food, alcohol or other substances, sex, or some other form of escape. Unless your sister and her family see this for what it is, it will continue, with or without this credit card. But he needs to want to get help himself. This problem is far bigger than one credit card. If you broke your promise to your niece and told your sister, he would likely find another way of satisfying his addiction.
It would, of course, be helpful if your sister discovered his deception and was able to put an end to this particular line of credit, but she is playing a game of Whac-a-Mole. I don’t believe it’s worth breaking your niece’s trust for that. There are, however, other ways for your sister to discover this latest credit card. You could talk to your niece and tell her what I told you, you could ask your sister how it’s going with his spending, and advise her to keep track of bank accounts, or run a credit check.
This issue is bigger than anyone realizes and, unless there is some kind of intervention, where each family member tells him how it’s hurting them, their financial security, their trust in him, and putting the family’s finances at risk, it will continue. With or without the discovery of this credit card coming to light, his family would do well to tell him how it’s affecting them. His behavior has consequences, and it’s hurting others. It’s time to break the spell of his spending sprees.
There are many options open to him, including a 12-step program for people who get themselves and others into debt, marriage counseling and financial therapists. Money is an emotive and emotional issue. Our impulse spending is connected to our emotional and mental health. When your brother-in-law spends money and receives a new “gift” to himself, he may feel in control and empowered. Like anyone on a destructive path, alas, he is actually spinning out of control.
He needs to analyze the cause of this behavior. Whatever anxieties or lack of psychological safety that he feels needs to be addressed. If he felt at home in his own skin, he would not need to seek his thrills with new toys. Understanding a problem and showing compassion is the doorway to finding a solution to that problem. But it only opens the door. Even with an intervention, he will need to be ready to face his own demons, and admit that this problem is bigger than even he realizes.
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