#1381: “How to make someone known for going back on their promises put a big financial promise into writing.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (27, she/her) have a sister (28, she/her) who is in a very different financial situation than me. She has more savings, thanks to our parents having a history of giving her financial help and leaving me to fend for myself (quick example, they put her through college for 8 years and refused to contribute anything to my studies). She also has a higher income than I do, and she has a husband who also has a significant income. I am aro-ace and without any sort of life partner.

Now she bought her dream house and because she didn’t want to use her savings and commit to a longterm loan, my parents gave her a large sum of money so she could buy the property. And, because my parents have always preached about wanting to keep things even between the two of us, they have now promised to give me the same amount of money once I find a house to buy. Sounds nice, right?

Except…my parents don’t actually keep things even between us, ever, and they have a long history of going back on (small and big) promises. A couple of years ago, they bought a small flat, which they first promised to gift to my sister. She wasn’t interested in the flat, because her husband’s parents were letting them live rent-free in a bigger flat of theirs. So then they promised the flat to me. Except when I asked to follow through on that promise, they backed out, saying they didn’t want to give anything big to me as long as they couldn’t give the same to my sister. They wanted to give something to both of us at the same time. Then they promised to let me rent the flat at a lower rate ‘for as long as I wanted to’. Even though I urged them to put it in writing (even inviting them to put an end-date on this, so all of us would have a set date to keep in mind), they declined to. A couple of months later they started kicking up a fuss about this deal and started ‘hinting’ I should move out of the flat.

So now they’ve given my sister a big amount of money and — in spite of all of their earlier ideals about giving us a big financial gift at the same time, so as to be sure no one would be left out — they are back to the vague promises to me of giving me my due someday. I am currently not in a situation where I can afford to buy property, even with the sum they would be giving me, so I can’t take them up on this promise right away. So I want them to put it in writing so that I can rest assured that this money will still be on the table once I can/need to use it. Which they are refusing to do.

Obviously, I am afraid that if I want to buy something in a couple of years’ time, they will have gone back on their promise by then. On top of that, there is always a risk that one or both of them will die soon, in which case I would be dependent on my sister to first let me have the share that is due to me before splitting the rest of the inheritance equally amongst the both of us. To be clear: I also do not trust my sister to be fair about this.

Therefore, I have tried to convince my parents to put this promised money in writing, and they are refusing to do so. My sister has emphasized how much she trusts me and how much we trust each other, and I don’t know how to come out and say that I don’t trust her, or them for that matter, without burning important bridges.

How can I convince them to put any of this on paper?

Kind regards,
Anxious about Future Finances

Dear Anxious:

Your sister is clearly the favorite child, your parents are obviously jerks about this, and I do not think you can ever count on money from them. Ever. Every time they want to give your sister money, they will. Every time they don’t want to give you money, they won’t. They’ll use “fairness” as a made-up excuse (classifying monetary gifts to your sister as “help” and the bare minimum of rent control for you as “freeloading”), and they have flat out said they won’t sign anything about their intentions. I mean, they are making your entire point for you: If they sign something, it will be harder to break their promises next time, and they’d prefer to keep their promise-breaking options open!

So here is what I think you can do: 

Stay in the low-rent flat for as long as it is financially convenient for you, moving is expensive and hard so don’t do it if you don’t absolutely have to. Do not respond to hints about leaving. If they want you to go? Make them come out and ask you to go.

In the meantime, use the savings on rent to sock as much money as you can into a down-payment on future housing, and moving costs, as well as an emergency fund in case they do ask you to leave or sell the place out from under you. Pay your bills on time and pay attention to your credit history and score. Plus, if you can afford and have access to therapy, “my parents keep making and breaking promises to me but then go all out for my sister” is a good topic to take there. They probably don’t see their behavior as rewarding your sister for following the kind of conventional life they approve of and as punishing you for not doing the same thing, but it’s incredibly obvious that she is the golden child and you’re the afterthought here. 

For now, drop the subject of money with them. As long as you’re not imminently buying a house, they can keep brushing it off with “when the time comes,” so why not let them for now? When you are ready to buy property of your own in the future, don’t loop your parents in to the process. Select properties and apply for a mortgage based on what you want and can afford for yourself without their help. [Depending on where you live there are many programs to help first-time home buyers with down payments and closing costs, so do your research]. 

When you’ve found a home you like and can afford on your own, THEN let your parents know that you’re getting ready to buy and ask: Are they able to offer you the support they promised in the past? If they say yes, great! You can ease some of the stress and financial burden with whatever they give you. If they start in with “But what about your sister?” you can say, “Er, not sure what she has to do with me buying my first house, but, are you still able to supply the $X you’ve mentioned in the past? It will really help me calculate how much house I can afford if I know the exact number.” 

Start out cordially, treat them as if you expect them to follow through with what they promised, and make them do the actual work of letting you down. [Which they most likely will.] Even if they agree, in principle, be prepared for them to find fault with every listing you show them, and watch out when they try to attach a lot of strings. I anticipate lectures about how “entitled” you are and that’s why it’s actually your fault they won’t give you money that they outright promised to give you someday. Your sister needs money for literally anything? They’re delighted to help, they’ll even buy a whole apartment that she doesn’t want! You mention the subject of money? FAUX PAS. Do your best to laugh at the obvious hypocrisy and brush it off, and remember that money from them isn’t real until it is in your bank account. Do not enter into any agreements that depend on money from them coming through, don’t give them the power to eff you over.

If you think that your sister will advocate for you, send her on a mission with a script like “Parents, you gave me [MANY MONIES, LARGE NUMBER] to help me pursue my studies, buy a home ,and stay out of debt, and you’ve always promised the same to LW when it was her turn. I know how important fairness is to you, so I’m sure you’ll do the right thing here!” They don’t care about you, but they actually seem to give a shit what she thinks of them, so use that without shame or apology if she’ll agree to actually help. 

If nothing works, when things inevitably deteriorate, you can say, “Okay, thanks for telling me so I can make a good decision for myself,” and buy your home without a single penny from them. It’s completely up to you whether they are ever allowed to set foot in it. 

I don’t think it was silly of you to ask for promises in writing, since your parents kept falling all over themselves about how they value “fairness.” By asking outright, either you get the promise and the cash, or you get concrete information that the money was always a lie or a tool of manipulation. But now you know, and probably the healthiest thing you can do for yourself is to let go of expectations about it. They should just do what they promised, true! But that “should” is a trap as long as you invest your time and effort in people who (literally!) are not investing in you.

I wish I had some secret script for you that would get a different result, but you have a ton of evidence that this is how your parents are. They will make any excuse to provide for your sister and don’t feel bound by promises they make to you. It is ultimately their money to do with as they wish, and this is the kind of relationship they are choosing to have with you. You can’t change them or their minds, but you can choose not to base important decisions on winning their approval or waiting for them to deliver on empty promises. From where I see it, the whole situation is neither fair nor fixable. Maybe that information can at least be freeing, in some way?