Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnist answers a reader question.

By Julie Rottenberg
Updated April 22, 2010
Restaurant bill with money
| Credit: Monica Buck

Q. My parents have recently been burdened with financial troubles. My stepfather has had difficulty making sales at his company, while my mother, who has not worked in many years, is struggling to find a job. My husband and I are financially comfortable at this time, and it is very difficult for us to watch them struggle to pay their basic bills while we are eating out regularly. Should we offer to help financially until they are able to regain their footing? If not financially, how should we offer to help?
Name withheld upon request

A. Only you know if offering to help your parents financially will be met with ecstatic squeals of gratefulness or humiliated anger. If you’re pretty sure it’s the former, then of course offer to help, but be sure to decide on the exact mode before broaching the topic. For example, if you’d like to give them a lump sum, I’d say to present it as a gift. I’ve found that that’s simpler—you’re not a bank, after all—but be prepared that they might want to consider it a loan. If that’s the case, I recommend drawing up a detailed agreement as to when and how the loan will be repaid. A loan might make your folks feel less awkward about accepting money from their child. But if you do proceed with this loan, I still would view it as a gift on your part. Despite their best intentions and efforts, your parents may not be able to pay the money back by the appointed time.

If, however, you’re afraid your parents might take insult at being offered financial help or are too proud, there are other ways to help ease their burdens. You could treat them to meals whenever you go out together, surprise them with groceries every few weeks, or send them a gift certificate to Trader Joe’s or another favorite local food store. Beyond necessities like groceries, find a way to surprise them, either by bringing over a few unrequested items (a sun hat you know your mother needs or a new pair of slippers for your dad) or inviting them to join you at a movie, concert, or some other indulgence that you know they’d enjoy but would never allow themselves during this difficult time.

Whichever route you decide to go, it’s safe to assume your parents feel some shame about their current situation, so try not to make too big of a deal about any of this. A casual “This one’s our treat” at the end of a meal or “I was buying one of these for myself and figured you might love one as well” is a better approach than a sober announcement of “We know you’re having a hard time, and we’re worried.”

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