Rachel offers advice on a debt that's causing trouble in one Crème reader's family - and marriage...
Over a year and a half ago my husband and I began discussing what we would like to do the car that we had been sharing for over eight years (the car I had purchased from my Grandmother in college by sending her monthly checks and supporting billing updates until my debt was completely clear. I prided myself with my consistent and committed reputation to pay my bill). At that time, the car ran fine and got us around town but it was pretty old and likely to require more work than it was worth in the few years to come. We entertained the idea of driving it until it simply quit running or selling it for a low but decent amount of cash.
During this season of discussing what to do, my husband's younger brother got in a car accident and totaled his own car. Very sad news for him, especially since he delivers groceries for his job and needs transportation to stay working. My mother-in-law had mentioned to him that we were thinking of selling our car so he called my husband and before I knew it we were discussing selling our car to my brother-in-law for a very small sum of money (less than half of what we thought we could sell it for to anyone else) and that weekend we cleaned the entire car out and my brother-in-law came to town (he lives several hours away) and purchased it from us.
Only he never paid for it. Not a dime. Not a check, not an I.O.U....nothing.
For several weeks after his "purchase" I would ask my husband about the status of payment. These conversations were never pleasant. My husband encouraged me to be patient as his brother was in a tight spot financially which I understand completely and am even happy to accommodate, but I've always felt the issue was never dealt with correctly by not having an official payment plan (which was not what I had wanted) nor asking for payment when weeks turned into months turned into nearly two years.
Almost each time I would see my husband's brother he would mention that he either had a check for us or planned to mail a check to which I would politely say, "Thank you, that would be great!", but to this day no checks have come.
Only several weeks after he took our car, it died. It has been my suspicion that he did not drive it carefully enough nor fix a wire that we suggested he look after but I will never know for sure. Maybe it would have happened to us on the very same date had we kept it. Again, very sad news.
Shortly after this my brother-in-law purchased yet another car (his job still requires it) but this time he actually did purchase it, as in, he pays money for it. While with him at a family event, his cell phone alarm went off at an odd time of the day. His girlfriend asked him what the alarm was for and he answered by saying it was his reminder to pay his car payment.
This is where my jaw dropped and I lost it....on the inside, of course.
When I shared his information with my husband he was very hurt by his brother but still has not addressed the issue. This baffles me and I would never approach the situation the same way but I am exhausted from our conversations about it so I try to not bring it up.
To offer my brother-in-law some credit, we did go in with him on a family purchase a few months ago. When I brought out my checkbook and asked him what we owed him (we had agreed to go in an halves of something), he embarrassingly looked down and said to not pay him because he had been a loser for not paying us and to please subtract this from what he owes us...to which I politely said, "Thank you, that would be great!". He said he would start sending checks. Still no payment.
It has obviously been a huge disappointment. I recently saw my own mother for the holidays and she validated that the situation was not right and it was unfortunate but insisted I do everything within my power to let it go.
I know this is true and I am honestly trying to let it go but frankly, it still bothers me to know we were taken advantage of by family. It is a terrible feeling knowing that my brother-in-law does not respect us enough to pay us for our car (which was registered in my name) but pays a complete stranger every month at the sound of a cell phone alarm buzz. I realize he cannot get away with not paying a stranger and I realize in the end it's a small lump of cash but it still hurts.
What would you do in this situation?
Jaded sister-in-law who thank God, still has a bike
Thank you so much for your question.
As I read, I was swayed (just like you) back and forth between fighting for this unpaid debt and letting it go, and I can understand how agonizing this has been for you. When I arrived at the end of your letter, I was perplexed by your predicament. But then I remembered that the way I approach all etiquette is to keep 3 things in mind: compassion, clear communication and boundaries. You have one of these tenets down - compassion! You've put yourself in your brother-in-law's shoes and imagined how hard his financial situation must be, and must have been at the time of his accident. You also acknowledge how unfortunate it was for the car to die soon after he started driving it. By demonstrating compassion for your brother-in-law, you're practicing good etiquette, but this situation is missing clear communication and boundaries. So let's work on that. It's also crucial that you keep your focus on maintaining these relationships. Money and property issues can rip families apart and cause life-long resentments, so moving carefully in this territory is key.
It seems like your husband and his brother may clearly understand the logistics of the situation, but may not fully grasp the emotional toll it has taken on you. First, calmly communicate to your husband how this situation makes you feel. Be clear about how important this is to you and that you still feel deeply disrespected and disappointed by his brother's actions (or, rather, inaction). It is important here that you are both on the same page because you require his support on this issue.
It is most appropriate for your husband to communicate about the car with his brother. However, if he is unwilling or unable to have this conversation, the next best option is for you to call on behalf of the both of you. In either case, communication should be straightforward and set firm boundaries: 'Can we set up a fair way for you to pay us back for the car?' Make a clear plan, set a date that the debt should be fully paid by, and also consider a sizable discount on his payment, keeping in mind his financial situation and that the car died soon after he started driving it. This conversation is uncomfortable, but it seems like it will be worth the discomfort. It will be a relief to you, your husband and your brother-in-law to clear the air and pay off this debt. It sounds like this debt is weighing on his conscience, too! Unfortunately, if this fails, and he does not pay you back, it might be time to let it go and refrain from lending to your brother-in-law in the future.
Next time, before lending important possessions or large amounts money to friends or family, make sure you have an up-front discussion on how the debt will be repaid and a timeline of payment, or for how long an item will be borrowed. It often feels too serious or 'business like' to put family or friends in a contract like this, but it will provide so much comfort and relief because all parties know where they stand.