‘They have no running water’: Our neighbors constantly hit us up for money. My husband gave them $400. Is it selfish to say no?

Dear Quentin,

My husband has been “loaning” money to someone who lives near us. 

This man and his wife have fallen on hard times, but in reality they have been in this predicament for decades. He hasn’t had a job for many years, because he says that his wages will be garnished so it isn’t worth working. They owe a lot in property taxes. So he does odd jobs for cash. 

They have hit up neighbors for money over the years, but everyone else has stopped giving them money. Even the local church no longer helps them out. The wife receives Social Security Disability and the husband just turned 62 and started receiving Social Security this month. 

Their house is literally falling apart, and they have no running water. They come to our house to fill up water jugs when needed. Just this month, my husband loaned the man $400. I wouldn’t mind this, except this guy constantly calls my husband to borrow $20 or $40 at a time.

‘Are we being selfish?’

Sometimes my husband will have him work off some of the money he owes by weeding or trimming shrubs — things we can do ourselves. My husband claims that the guy will pay us back when he has the money, but I doubt it. We are now constantly fighting about this. 

I am starting to feel that we are being used, but my husband feels bad for them. We are a retired couple in our late 60s and this is blowing our budget for retirement. My husband says that we have the money and are in good financial shape. 

I told my husband that instead of giving cash, let’s buy our neighbor oil for his car — he has a history of running vehicles into the ground from not taking care of them — or gas cards, or store gift cards, but he says the guy wants cash. I don’t know how long this will go on.

Am I being selfish? Is there another way to handle this situation?

Good (or Bad) Neighbors

Related: My in-laws asked me to relinquish any claim to $100,000 they gave us as a down payment for our house — on the day we closed. Is that legal?

“As shocking as it might seem, there are more than 2.2 million people in the U.S. without running water.”

MarketWatch illustration

Dear Neighbor,

Being a good neighbor does not necessarily mean giving money to others when they ask for it. In fact, you could be enabling these neighbors rather than helping them. But there are other issues here that need addressing: You can be a good neighbor by helping them find assistance to make their home habitable — including making sure they have access to running water. This is not just a lifestyle or financial problem: Unhygienic conditions pose a threat to their health, too.

They might be able to apply for single-family-housing loans through the Department of Agriculture. Other organizations that could help them bring their home up to basic standards include AARP; the nonprofit Community Action Partnership, which was created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and with the advocacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that partners with people in the local community.

Your neighbors may be stuck in a cycle of poverty, and giving them cash will not help address their basic needs. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to many diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid, the World Health Organization says, adding that “absent, inadequate, or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks.” 

As shocking as it might seem, there are more than 2.2 million people in the U.S. without running water, according to the nonprofit DigDeep, which aims to bring safe, clean water to all U.S. households. Another 44 million people in the U.S. don’t have water that’s safe to drink. “Black and Latinx households are twice as likely as white households to lack indoor plumbing, while Native American households are 19 [times] as likely,” the organization says.

Selfish versus realistic

As to your original question, there’s nothing like a balance sheet and a timeline to provide context and wake people up to the realities of their own retirement prospects. You could use this as an opportunity to have a discussion with your husband about your financial goals, income, savings and expenditures. You’re correct that $400 here and $40 there can add up, and your husband is effectively addressing the symptoms of your neighbors’ financial troubles rather than the source of the problem.

You’re not being selfish; you’re being realistic. We are here to help people — that is our job as human beings — but no one can be expected to pour money into a neighbor’s coffers at the expense of their own financial well-being. Perhaps it makes your husband feel good about himself, but there are other ways for him to help out in his community, in addition to the organizations listed above. Decisions about giving money to these neighbors should be made jointly by you and him. A codependent relationship with a neighbor is not advisable.

There’s very little chance that you will see any of this money again, so if your husband has given a total of $1,000 — to pick a round number — to these neighbors, he needs to write it off and then consider what else you could have done with that money: fix your own plumbing, improve insulation, replaster walls, paint your home, upgrade your car, top up your emergency fund — which should be enough to cover at least six months’ worth of expenses — or even take a vacation.

This is not Monopoly money. Your husband is putting your neighbors’ needs above your own, and as long as he is a “soft touch” — that is, someone who finds it difficult to say no even when many others reached that point a long time ago — the longer he will continue to act as a “savior.” The term has biblical connotations, but it’s not always a smart or sustainable choice in real life. He can still be a good husband and a good neighbor, though, by being a helper.

He just needs to know the difference between the two.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

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My partner is against us getting married. I’m not on the deed to his home, but he has a revocable trust. What could go wrong?

I want my son to inherit my $1.2 million house. Should I leave it to my second husband in my will? He promised to pass it on.

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