Michelle Singletary: We are our brother’s keepers
When a natural disaster strikes, our character can be tested.
Such is the case facing members of a family who became homeless after Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of the East Coast in the fall. During a recent online discussion, I received a question from a reader asking what to do to help relatives who lost their house in New York.
But, the reader noted, the family had also “squandered” a $300,000 inheritance received a few years ago, buying luxury items such as “two expensive cars, a high-end computer and tech equipment, which were all also lost in the storm. This is a pattern that has been repeated a few times with this particular couple.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough insurance to cover their losses (they didn’t have flood insurance) and government support has been minimal, the family member wrote. For most homes, apartments and businesses, the only insurance protection against damage from rising water is flood insurance underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program. Standard homeowners and renters insurance policies do not cover flood damage.
“What do I and the other concerned siblings do in such an event?” the reader asked. “We could all provide some form of help, though none of us is wealthy by any means. I find myself debating not funding my child’s college education for a year to help them out. But I become so angry at the thought of all the money they wasted.”
Hurricane Sandy damaged many areas in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. Insured losses from the storm are estimated to range from $10 billion to $20 billion, according to Eqecat, a risk-modeling firm. Eqecat estimates that the total cost of the storm, including damage not covered by insurance, could be as high as $50 billion.
Even the most financially savvy families can find themselves struggling after a natural disaster. Despite having the most comprehensive insurance policies, you can have out-of-pocket expenses that can significantly drain your savings. If you are unprepared for something like Hurricane Sandy, the financial aftermath can be devastating.
I understand the frustration coming from the siblings who want to help but fear they will be rewarding bad behavior. It’s especially hard to be magnanimous when you’ve been saving and pinching pennies while the family now in need has been living large. You planned, but they partied.
I often receive e-mails from readers frustrated at the bailout of people they feel have been irresponsible. They complain that they’ve done everything right and now the reckless are being rewarded.
But isn’t that what life is? Not fair. You do the right thing and then are faced with a test like this. You are in a position to help. So do you? Do you give to those who didn’t save or act fiscally responsible? Do you help the seemingly unworthy?
Yes, you do. You help if you can afford to provide assistance. For one thing, you help because perhaps there was a time — or will be a time — that you received help when you didn’t deserve it.
Before you burst a vein, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be responsible or discerning with your financial aid. But we can’t have a test for who deserves help and who doesn’t. It’s inevitable that when you give, you will be giving to someone who should have done better. Still, you give from the heart simply because of the need.
I think the siblings should pitch in to help the couple if they can afford it. And if the way to afford helping is to pull back on contributing to a college savings plan, I’d be okay with such a decision. I might not stop contributing for a year, but I could see earmarking some of the money to help the family. You can catch up later, even if it means you have to cut some of your expenses. The sacrifice is for a good cause. Besides, think of the example you are setting for your children. You are showing them that you are your brother’s keeper.
This isn’t the time to punish. The family needs a decent place to live. They need help getting back on their feet. Later, when they are settled, you might suggest they practice better money management skills to prevent them from having to lean so heavily on the rest of the family when trouble hits.
So, if you can, put your anger aside. Don’t give grudgingly. What you do under this type of circumstance speaks volumes about your character. Even if the couple returns to spendthrift ways, you did the right thing, and that’s a priceless reward.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.
com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.