Why I’ve Developed a Financial Savior Complex

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

OK, confession time: I have a bit of a financial savior complex.

If a loved one hints at financial strain, I want to jump in and fix the problem, either by giving advice or giving money. The latter is often in short supply, but I always seem to have plenty to spare of the former. I go on tangents about impulsive behavior, tout the virtues of long-term saving, and heap on unsolicited financial resources.

Nowhere is this more evident than with my sister Rory. Thirteen years my junior, I see so much of my younger self in her that I can’t resist the impulse to tell her what to do. I’m not bossing her around. I’m helping her avoid the financial mistakes I made.

At 19, Rory’s financial life is just beginning and I want it to be a rich one (no pun intended). I don’t want to see her dodging debt collectors’ phone calls. I don’t want her to take out exorbitant student loans, only to realize the consequences years later. And I really don’t want her to rack up credit card debt on non-essentials that are fun in the moment but could cost her hundreds or thousands of dollars in the long-term. I know from experience how shame- and anxiety-inducing these behaviors are, because I was there. I made those decisions.

The pain of my own mistakes sometimes blinds me to the fact that even though we look alike, sound alike, and have uncannily similar personalities, Rory isn’t me, and I need to give her some credit. Unlike me, who cried and fought with my parents on a near-daily basis until they gave in to my insistence that I take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to go to my first-choice college, my sister transferred from an expensive out-of-state university to a local community college so she could minimize the amount of debt she took on while in school. She also pays her credit card bills on time every month, a practice I didn’t master until I was in my late 20s. Still, the urge is strong to lecture her: “Pay off your balances every month,” “Don’t waste money on junk and going out to eat,” “You should be saving a portion of every paycheck.”

But focusing on Rory’s potential financial peril is actually a distraction from fixing my own mistakes. The old adage, ‘you can’t help others until you help yourself,’ is good advice, but tough to live by all the time. The deeper I go on my financial journey, the more work I see there is to be done. Trying to “save” other people in the meantime feels good, not just because I’m helping people I love but because it gives me a sense of immediate accomplishment. Budgeting, changing my money mindset, and paying off debt is challenging, and the gratification is often very delayed.

It’s also tempting to think that if I can help someone else, it proves I’ve mastered financial concepts that once eluded me. Except it doesn’t prove that at all. I still make budgeting and spending mistakes, I still worry about the size of my emergency fund, I still wonder whether I’ll be secure in my old age. Writing about some people’s need to “rescue” others—a tendency she terms “white knight syndrome”—clinical psychologist Mary C. Lamia explains that “Although the white knight’s heroic actions may take the form of slaying her partner’s metaphorical dragons, her real goal, which is often beyond her awareness, involves slaying the dragons from her own past.”

I realize that my well-intentioned lecturing can feel overbearing. I have to remind myself that Rory is an adult now. She’s allowed to make her own decisions. When she tells me she’s considering buying yet another Kylie Jenner lip kit, I stifle the urge to tell her she has enough make-up. (Besides, I would have dropped $45 on the Koko Kollection if I thought I could pull off the matte look). If she wants my opinion, she’ll ask.

I still have a way to go until all my financial dragons are ancient history. However, I know the only way I’ll progress is if I embrace the grueling and less appealing challenge of managing my own money—instead of getting mixed up in other people’s problems.