Friends Don't Loan Friends Money. Or Do They?

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars consider the problems that arise when friends loan friends money. What happens when a friend doesn't pay you back? How does a loan affect the power of one person over another? Steve and Cheryl offer different takes on the issue.


Dear Sugars,

I remember reading, at some point, that you should be willing to give any money you lend to friends and family as a gift if you want to maintain that friendship or relationship. I get this. I've lived by it for a long time. However, I went against my better judgment and lent a friend a lot of money. She said she would pay me back quickly, but now it's been almost a year. I never imagined that she would avoid the topic the way she has, but after I lent her the money, she never mentioned it again. My heart hurts when I think about it. If it were a few hundred dollars I would feel OK with the gift, but this is a big amount of money.

Should I assume that if I bring it up with her and ask her to pay me, that I am going to lose the friendship? It feels so incredibly unfair that this is on me.

I'm also wondering, why me? Why did she seek me out to ask for this large sum? Do I have "sucker" written on my forehead? How can I avoid being taken advantage of again?

I'm thinking of emailing her with the original message where she asked me for money, and promised to pay me back quickly.

What would you do?

Signed,

Burned

Steve Almond: This is a question about the conversion of shame into power. It's not about the money; it's about the avoidance and about the onus being on you to have to bring this up.

But Burned, you have to understand your friend is not trying to hurt your feelings. She's ashamed, and because she's not in a financial circumstance to pay you back, she assumes you have power over her. You didn't ask for it, but that's what happened when you gave her the loan. And this is why money is so complicated. It's ultimately about power and shame in ways we can't anticipate when we make that well-meaning loan.

I would be honest about wanting the money back and also feeling that the loan has somehow put you at odds. You ask how to avoid being taken advantage of again. This has been your teacher — that there's no loan that doesn't involve this transaction of power and shame, and you're in the midst of extracting not only the money but the intact friendship.

Cheryl Strayed: I disagree with you about the idea that there's no loan that doesn't involve the transaction of power and shame. I can speak to this from experience, Burned, because over the course of the last decade, I've have had several loans from friends. And now, over these last few years, I have given loans to friends. I have about three or four outstanding loans right now. And Burned, I'm a little bit in your situation with a couple of them.

When it's gone well, we've been really open about it. I have said, "I'm so ashamed that I have to ask you for this loan, and here's when I can pay you back." And then when it comes to pass that I can't pay back on the schedule I proposed, we make a new schedule. That releases the shame because then we're talking about it. I can say to my friend, "Listen, will it put you in a pinch if I can't pay you for another six months?" Then that friend can say yes or no, and everything's out in the open and it isn't shameful. Now, the flip side of that is it can also go sour, and when it goes sour is when we retreat into silence. This is all about shame.

Burned, I really believe your friend is going to pay you back and has every intention of doing so. But because she hasn't been able to pay you back as quickly as she initially proposed, she's embarrassed. So she's doing this thing we do when we're ashamed and embarrassed — we go into denial. We think if we don't mention it, maybe it doesn't exist. So the solution is to talk about it.

You ask, "Is the friendship over if I ask her to pay me back?" and I would say absolutely not. The opposite is true. The friendship is over if you stay silent about this, because what's happening is you're becoming resentful. I don't think it's a bad idea to give friends loans. I think it's a bad idea to allow shame to rule the way that loan is managed.

If I were you, I would write a brand new email and just say, "Hey, just checking in about that money." And you could even say, "Look, we could work out a really long-term payment plan of 25 bucks a month." Most people can do something like that, and it adds up over time. And more importantly, it makes you feel that the loan you gave her is being valued and respected in the terms that you hoped for when you gave her the money. It feels bad now, but trust me, all it will take is that email. All it will take is that exchange, and your friend will be happy for it, too.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to also hear from a woman wondering if she can be in a relationship with a service member who is constantly away from home.

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