September 29, 2022

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‘Should I Let My Estranged Dad Pay My Student Loans?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

I’ve never had a good relationship with my dad. He was awful to my mom and she finally kicked him out for good when I was five or six. We struggled a lot financially after that. He would come visit occasionally, but our relationship has always been strained to say the least.

Now I’m in my late 20s, and he recently reached out and offered to help me with my student loans. He’s never offered financial assistance in the past, even though I know he could have afforded it (he’s in car sales). I don’t know why he’s doing this, and part of me just thinks he’s trying to win me over or make up for being an asshole. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of feeling like he’s helping me, but at the same time, I could really use it. I owe about $40K and I’m not looking forward to payments resuming at the end of the year. 

Do I swallow my pride and say yes? If so, how can I create boundaries around this? Or should I just say no?

My gut reaction is that you could just accept his offer and run. From a moral perspective, you’re in the clear — it sounds like your dad didn’t give you much financial support when you were growing up, so this isn’t a gift as much as a back payment, as transactional as that sounds. Either way, you don’t owe him anything. And as you point out, this money could help you a lot.

That said, I understand your fears about letting him back into your life at all, especially if he sucks up more energy than you’re willing to give. (I know what it’s like to deal with emotional vampires, and they’re best kept at arm’s length no matter how tempting their overtures may be.)

To determine your next steps, I spoke to Matt Lundquist, the clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, and Sonya Lutter, a financial therapist and the founder of EnLite, a research and training program for financial and mental-health professionals. Both pointed out that before you move forward, you have some questions to answer for yourself.

You mentioned you don’t know what your dad hopes to get out of this, though you have some ideas. Your first step is to think about asking him. “How do you feel about having a conversation with him about his intentions?” says Lundquist, who has helped many clients work through family money issues. “Would you be comfortable calling him up and saying something like, ‘Thanks for reaching out with this offer. What’s your plan? Do you see this as a way for us to get closer?’”

If, upon some reflection, you decide to hear him out, then pause again and see how you feel about his response. Remember, you have agency throughout this process. Money can be a proxy for control, but in this case, you hold all the power — if he lets you down or makes you uncomfortable, then you’re free to disengage at any time. Just make sure that you have an alternate plan in place — i.e. a budget that incorporates your student loan payments once they start again. You don’t want to bank on this financial arrangement and then have it fall through, or get yourself in a position where you’re willing to compromise on your boundaries just to keep the money coming.

One optimistic possibility, however far-fetched, is that your dad has grown and worked on himself and is extending this offer as part of an attempt to make legitimate amends with you. But even under the best circumstances, you are under no obligation to reciprocate. “You get to decide what you want to do, and a perfectly acceptable choice at any point is to say, ‘I’m not interested in a relationship with you under any conditions,’” says Lundquist.

No matter what, you want to be clear with yourself — and your dad — about where your relationship stands. “Think of this as a non-transactional experience, as if it’s coming from a stranger,” says Lutter. “There’s no favor expected in return.” Can you communicate that to your dad and say something like, “I will accept your gift if there are no strings attached”? Would he even be willing to send money directly to your student-loan provider so you can minimize contact with him? More important, how does he respond when you ask these things?

Lutter also recommends thinking further ahead. “In five or ten years, chances are that your relationship with your dad will be unchanged,” she says. (Unfortunately, past behavior is the best prediction of future behavior.) “But in that same time frame, having some or all of your student loans paid off could make a big difference in your life.”

I’d also encourage you to examine the role your mom plays in your decisions. I understand why you’re loyal to her, but that alliance isn’t compromised by accepting your dad’s financial help, which he arguably should have offered all along.

Worst-case scenario: Your dad is trying to weasel his way back into your life in a way that doesn’t serve you. If that happens, you can cut him out again, which puts you back where you are now. But the best-case scenario is pretty good: Your debts will be reduced, and your dad will have contributed something useful to your life. I hope the outcome is the latter. Either way, it seems worth exploring.

The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to [email protected]