The Moneyist: ‘I have committed financial infidelity’: I racked up $50,000 in debt to help my troubled son — and have not told my husband. How do I get out of this mess?

Dear Quentin,

I have committed financial infidelity. This is a second marriage, and one of my sons is unstable and a substance user. He has stolen from us in the past, and two of his children are now living with him. 

He doesn’t work, is on public assistance, and demands money from me. He gets very abusive when I don’t give it to him. This is the second time I have gone into debt behind my husband’s back. 

I worry about my grandchildren, where they will live when my son can’t pay rent, how they will study without internet access and more. I have been subjected to a tremendous amount of emotional abuse by this son. 

“‘Punishing yourself over and over is not an act of sacrifice and humility, but a way of escalating and prolonging the drama.’”

It is possible to file bankruptcy as a separate individual, but it becomes more complicated when you jointly have debts and own an asset like a family home. But for $50,000, I don’t advise you going down this route. It will destroy your credit rating, and potentially cause more stress and financial problems for you and your husband. Work off the debt.

If your son has leaned on you in the past, he will do so again. You need the support of both your husband and a therapist (or a financial therapist) to navigate this. No means no. There will be no more funds. He will use his children as leverage. You could — with the cooperation of your husband — take in his children, but you can’t afford to keep enabling him.

Put a freeze on your credit reports with the three major agencies to make it more difficult for you to take out any more credit-card debt. Tell your husband. The more decisions you make unilaterally and in secret, the more damage you will do to your marriage and your financial future. Your husband’s retirement and financial future is linked to yours.

Work out how long it will take you to pay off this debt, and commit to that. Reduce your spending and stick to a budget. It will make you feel good to pay it off. It will be a good exercise in doing something for yourself, and when you reach your final payment, it will help your self-confidence. Fight for your marriage, and your financial and emotional independence. 

There are support groups out there for parents of troubled children, and 12-step programs like Al-Anon that help people such as yourself who have been impacted by family members with substance-abuse problems. To paraphrase one of their mottos: “You didn’t create your son’s problems, you’re not responsible for them and you can’t cure them.” He is an adult, and must take accountability for his own life.

And never let anyone have that kind of power over you again.

Learn how to shake up your financial routine at the Best New Ideas in Money Festival on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in New York. Join Carrie Schwab, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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Also read:

‘I call his kids spoiled. He gets mad’: My partner and I each have two children. He gives his kids gifts worth $1,000. I say we should cut that to $100. Who’s right?

‘My eyes rolled so far back in my head it gave me a headache’: I carpool with two co-workers. One refuses to take turns. With gas prices so high, is that fair?

‘I came into the marriage with a lot more money’: Is it ethical to give cash from my pre-marital investment accounts to my kids — without telling my second wife?

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