The Almighty Dollar

Restoring some fiscal sanity in our -- negative savings rate -- lives


Treating family -- when to say enough is enough

Consider me old-fashioned, but I think it's a matter of common courtesy to say thanks when someone is thoughtful enough to treat you, whether it be to a meal, a beer or a coffee. The more considerate among us will usually reciprocate the gesture at some point. But when it comes to family, are the rules the same?

For years, my husband and I had treated my brother and his fiance (now wife) to numerous lunches, dinners, and drinks. Since we live in different states, these instances would occur either when we were visiting family or when they came and stayed with us. Usually what happened was we would invite my parents to dinner, my brother and his fiance would join us, and we would end up footing the entire bill.

I enjoy treating my family and friends. I do it often, and they consider me to be quite generous. What bothered me was how my brother and his fiance always sat still when the bill came, never offered to pay even their share, nor offered to get it next time. And they never said thank you.

The last straw came during a visit over Thanksgiving, when my brother and fiance stayed with us for 4 days. We stocked the fridge, treated them at a nice restaurant upon arrival, cooked a masterful turkey dinner with all the fixin's, and had lined up plenty of fun things to do while they were here. One day, I ended up lunching and museum-hopping with his fiance, while the boys went to the hardware store for some home repair equipment. We went to a casual eatery, the kind of place where you order upfront, pay the cashier, and wait at a table until your number is called. After we each placed our orders, I was taking out my wallet and saw that my brother's fiance had already sat down. She assumed that I would be paying for this lunch, too.

Needless to say, I was incredulous. My brother is less than 2 years younger than me, and is certainly not bashful about his high salary (it's double what I make). His fiance does well, too. So we're not talking about young college grads surviving on pennies.

I held my tongue until he returned home -- and then battled with him over the phone. At first, he was defensive, stubborn, and called me cheap. But within days, he realized where I was coming from and admitted that he had been taking my generosity for granted. Now he is so insistent on paying for meals that it's become almost uncomfortable.

Ironically, my brother told me yesterday that he was having a similar problem with his sister-in-law (out of fairness, she is a recent college grad still trying to make it on her own). His wife is hesitant to say anything to her sister and hopes she will eventually come around.

I'm not so sure. I have no regrets about confronting my brother on such a sensitive matter. If I hadn't, I don't think he would have changed. It's hard to know where to draw the line, because you love 'em and they're family.