People seemed to dig my plan to Get Rich Slowly and declared that not-being-poor is something they plan to do. So, without stepping on any toes or mustaches, it’s time for part 2 of the “Putanumonit pretends to be a financial advice blog” series. To make sure I do this right, let’s first conduct a comprehensive review of the financial advice already on offer by the best sources online.
- The Simple Dollar – Thinking of loaning money to family? Don’t do it!
- Wall Street Journal – The perils of lending to family
- Money Crashers – 10 reasons why you should NOT lend money to friends and family
- Go Banking Rates – Why lending money to friends and family is a bad idea
- Wall Street Journal again, in case you weren’t paying attention – Never lend money to a friend. Repeat: just don’t do it
Weird, one could almost think that financial advice on the internet was sponsored by retail banks. The same banks that only recently replaced family as people main source of financing, and are making a nice profit doing it.
All these articles talk about the downsides of lending or borrowing money from people you know, although mostly in an anecdotal way. What these articles fail to mention, however, are the downsides of not lending and borrowing from people you know. I have an anecdote regarding those as well.
5 years ago, I talked with a business school classmate who owed about $160,000 in student loans. An American with an MBA is practically guaranteed to earn enough to pay that back, but until he does he’s paying 7% annual interest for the pleasure. Meanwhile his parents, both employed and many years from retirement, held a similar amount of money in US treasury bonds which earned them around 2% interest. The difference between the total interest my friend’s family was paying and getting was 5% of $160,000, or $8,000. By not lending money directly to their son, my friend’s family was setting eight thousand dollars on fire every single year.
$8,000 a year is quite a bit of downside.
When I got into business school, my own dad declared that he trusts me more than he trusts the US government, and unlike Uncle Sam I’m not carrying 15 trillion dollars of previous debt either. He said he’s happy to lend me money while I attended school at the prevailing US Treasury rates. What terrible tragedy befell our family for this sacrilege? I borrowed some money, spent it on
partying networking, graduated b-school, got a job, and paid my parents back.
People who really like you, for example friends and family, sometimes give you gifts. This fact sometimes confuses people when it comes to lending money to people they like. You can give someone a gift or a loan, but a loan is not a gift. It should be a mutually beneficial investment, with clear terms and no ambiguity. I have a few close friends that if they needed an emergency medical procedure tomorrow, I would gift them any amount they needed if I had it. But if they asked me for a loan to buy a new car, I would charge them interest and set a clear repayment schedule, along with appropriate provisions for early repayment and emergency deferral (if they lose their job for example) .
The main fear of lending money to friends is that in case they can’t repay you would lose both the money and the friendship. If the money was lent as a favor, not repaying favors is an unforgivable sin in friendships. But lending money with interest isn’t a favor, it’s an investment – you make money in return for taking a risk.
You should never lend an amount that you can’t afford to lose, and when you risk your money for profit you should be mentally prepared to lose it at the moment the loan is given. Specifying a clear contract takes the emotion out of it. If my friend can’t pay me back at the time we agreed, I can shrug it off as an unfortunate investment, like buying a stock that went down. It would be reason not to lend them any more money, but not reason to hate them forever.
Conversely, it may seem that charging your friends interest is exploitative. But the loan can only exist when it’s mutually beneficial – if my friend can pay 25% interest on a credit card but I charge them only 5% on the same amount, they’re getting most of the benefit. If my friend had perfect credit and could get a low-interest bank loan, they wouldn’t be asking me for a loan to start with. The reason a friend with a low score can make the loan mutually beneficial is because we have a lot more information about each other than just the credit score, or whatever a bank or credit card would have. This information reduces the risk of lending money, and thus reduces the interest rate required to compensate for the risk.
When someone walks into a bank to ask for a loan, the bank knows very little about them. Are they hardworking? Will they be motivated to repay the loan? What are their spending habits? The bank can’t even assume that they’re dealing with an average customer: adverse selection guarantees that they will get the worst customers that can possibly get through their screening.
With a friend, I’m not worried about that. I know my friend’s habits and plans, and I have a better guess about their motivation to repay me. I also suspect that motivation will be higher than if they dealt with a faceless institution.
Investing in friends also makes you an active contributor in their endeavors. If I lent money to a friend who is in school, I am even more motivated than usual to do whatever I can to support their studies and job search. With a simple loan, you turn a mere friend into an engaged partner.
I had lent to and borrowed money from my parents, friends, and even a girl I dated for four years – she actually sent me the final payment to close the debt a full year after we broke up. Grown ups should be able to handle money arrangements apart from personal arrangements, if they learned how to. When I have kids, I plan to teach them about money, planning and responsibility by opening a savings account at Daddy Bank as soon as they’re old enough to grok what an interest rate means.
So, are Wall Street Journal and the rest of the internet gurus simply wrong? On the contrary: they are almost completely correct.
Lending money within friends and family requires dealing with money in a way that’s honest, transparent, emotionally mature and mathematically sensible. Needless to say, that’s pretty uncommon. I happen to live in a country where weddings cost $26,600, half the population has less than $400 in savings but still buys lottery tickets, voters support price gouging laws, and instead of being honest about how much they make people waste money on expensive trinkets to signal their wealth to strangers. In this atmosphere of pervasive money-related insanity, keeping money away from personal relationships is the safe move.
But if you’ve stuck around Putanumonit for a while, I hope you’re getting the impression that money is a lot less scary than what the Wall Street Journal makes it out to be. You can invest it well, spend it wisely, even invent your own. And if a friend, a nephew or an ex-girlfriend seem to have a better use for your dollars than you have at the moment, you can probably figure out a way to make everyone better off.
Everyone except the banks, that is.