Under the subject line “Being Neighborly,” the reader wrote: “We live in a modest neighborhood next to an elderly widow. Often when I take her shopping, she will say she’d love to have something, but then say, ‘It is so expensive, dear.’ More often than not, I will buy it for her. My husband, son and other neighbors routinely mow her yard, shovel her walk and do small maintenance jobs on her house. She will sometimes offer them a dollar or two, but they always decline.
“So imagine my amazement when I inadvertently opened her bank statement to discover that her checking account has mid-five figures and her savings account and CDs total mid-six figures! (We use the same bank and the mailman mistakenly put her statement in our box.) That’s many times our family’s holdings. She should be paying for my food, not the other way around, and she can clearly afford to hire her own yard care and repair people.”
The reader said she taped up the envelope and wrote “opened by mistake,” and returned it to her neighbor’s mailbox.
“Other than ignoring her pleas of poverty when shopping, is there anything else I can/should do?” she asked. “My husband says to let it drop, but I’d like our efforts to go to help those genuinely in need.”
There is a good lesson in this story.
Never make assumptions when it comes to people’s assets. It’s not a sign of need just because someone may express dismay at the price of things. It’s not a sign you are destitute if you only offer a few dollars when someone volunteers to mow your yard.
Because you can’t know someone’s full financial situation by what they say or do, you should be careful about doling out cash or paying for things in the spirit of altruism.
Based on my own mistakes, here is what I do now if someone asks for financial assistance:
• Determine whether you are in a position to help. Don’t take on someone else’s money problems if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. Charity really does begin at home. Otherwise, if you find out later your money wasn’t needed, you will feel like a sucker. Once you’ve got a good handle on your own finances, you may discover that you have additional funds that can be allocated to help someone individually. This could be money above any funds you set aside to give to charitable organizations.
• Ask if the person needs your help. I know this sounds simple, but being frugal doesn’t mean you’re broke. The reader could have avoided feeling she was being taken advantage of by simply asking her neighbor if she needed the stuff she was buying for her. She could have said something like, “You always talk about things being so expensive. Is that because you’re frugal, or are you in need? I’d like to help you if you need the money.”
• Ask for proof. Before I shell out any money, I sit down with the person and look over their finances. My money — when I give it — comes with the requirement that you be open and honest about your financial situation.
• Look for other resources to help the person. You don’t want to set up a situation where you are likely to be doling out money long-term.
Finally, if you’ve determined there is a need and you can afford to help, make sure the money is used for that need. I once offered to help a struggling mother who had lost her job. Other than unemployment compensation, she had exhausted all other avenues for help. She had gone through all her savings. My husband and I decided to assist by paying a utility bill for two months. But I called the company and made arrangements to directly pay on her behalf.
As for the reader, I agree with her husband. Let it go, but learn the lesson. Besides, her efforts weren’t in vain. She wasn’t being a chump. She was being neighborly, and that’s priceless.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or email@example.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.com.