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PERSONAL FINANCE

Wait, don't pick up that check again!

Speak up politely but firmly when friends or relatives fail to repay loans or cover their share of the tab.

February 03, 2008|Kathy M. Kristof | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to dealing with freeloading friends and deadbeat relatives, Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwarz suggest that you be what they call the three P's: prompt, polite and pointed.

All too often, people get taken advantage of for no better reason than that cheapskates think they get away with it, according to the husband-and-wife writers, who pen a money and ethics column for Money magazine.

"There's no indication that these are people who are down to their last dollar," Schwarz said. "Every indication is that they are people who feel no moral obligation to pay."

The authors, whose book "Isn't It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?" was published last month, have categorized the people their readers consistently complain about into several character types, along with suggestions for dealing with each of them.

The deadbeat

An Internet survey conducted by Schwarz and Fleming indicates that 95% of adult Americans have lent money to a friend or family member, and 36% have made a loan of $1,000 or more. When asked about the largest such loan they had made, 43% said they hadn't been paid in full -- and 27% hadn't been paid at all.

Women are more likely to be stiffed than men, and poorer lenders are less likely to get their money back than those earning $100,000 or more, the survey found. That suggests skipping out on a debt isn't so much about what the borrower can afford but rather how vulnerable the creditor is perceived to be.

"The decision not to pay," Schwarz said, "is often the result of a cynical analysis of the person that they owe money to, rather than a sense of desperation."

Fleming added: "It's more about borrowers' calibrating whether they can get away with it."

How can you avoid getting skipped out on? Three tips:

First off, of course, be careful -- about whom you lend to and whether you can afford to make the loan.

"While it's great to be generous and do good deeds, you need to be analytic about whether the person is likely to repay you and whether you can live without the money if they don't," Schwarz said.

Second, if you expect to be repaid, put the loan in writing. You might not need a long contract, but you definitely need a few lines documenting who lent whom what amount, and when and how that loan is expected to be repaid. (If nothing else, the Internal Revenue Service requires such documentation if you later want to write off a bad debt on your income taxes.)

Finally, if a payment isn't made as stipulated, say something right away.

"If one month goes by and they don't pay you, you had better ask why," Schwarz said. "It doesn't mean that you have to send somebody to break their thumbs, but you need to put them on notice that they need to pay you or explain. Otherwise they get comfortable not paying you back."

The rathole relative

A special subset of the deadbeat is the chronic deadbeat relative: a family member who consistently borrows money that he never repays. One-third of those surveyed were familiar with this kind of relative.

Sometimes the nonpayment is a result of genuine financial problems. Often, however, the family member has plenty of money for luxuries but can never seem to pay the rent.

What do you do when you're hit up -- again -- for a loan?

Know what you're in for before getting in, Schwarz and Fleming suggest.

"You may decide that the love of your sister is such that you are willing to subsidize her behavior," Schwarz said. "But if you do that, you should make it part of the decision."

Some people try to put strings on these loans, saying, for example, that the money can be used only for rent or food. That might make you feel better, but Fleming called the strategy flawed because "money is fungible."

"So you pay her rent," Fleming said. "Now she can spend the rest of her money on bourbon."

And if you fund a relative, you have to figure it's like giving a mouse a cookie: The mouse will come back.

"You should realize that this is going to be a gift, not a loan," Schwarz said. "And it is going to reinforce their behavior."

The cheapskate

You and your three siblings decide to give an expensive present to your parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary. The problem: Everybody knows that one sibling won't pay his fair share -- because he never does. He either pays a small portion and forgets the rest or never ponies up the cash at all.

Instead of splitting the bill by three and signing the card for four, Fleming suggests that you either ask for the money in advance and include the cheapskate only if he pays his share, or sign the card from the three of you.

"The kids who pay can just tell their parents that it's a gift from them," she said. "They don't have to say anything bad about the brother."

In other words, let the cheapskate fend for himself.

The overspender

The flip side of that problem is the family overspender, who is happy to pay an equal share of the tab but makes the cost unaffordable for everyone else.

Example: Instead of buying a gift, you're planning an anniversary party for the parents.

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