My friend’s sister—let’s call her “Renee”—found herself homeless after breaking up with her boyfriend. My friend, “Adrian” naturally offered to let her sister Renee stay in the guest bedroom until she got herself back on her feet. That’s what families are for. Then why is it nine months later all hell broke loose, and now neither sister is speaking to the other? Because no rules or boundaries were established right from the start.

Renee took her sister at her word, that she could stay until she “got back on her feet.” She never said how long that would take because she honestly didn’t know. Adrian felt like she was running a bed & breakfast and didn’t like the additional responsibilities. Here’s how to prevent being a character on either side of this scenario.

#1. A clearly pre-determined time frame needs to be stipulated up front, in writing. From Renee’s perspective, what does “back on her feet” mean? When she has first and last month’s rent saved for a new apartment? How long will it take her to raise that? I mean, the fact that she was living with her boyfriend before, and he got access to the apartment, not Renee, could tell us a few things. Maybe Renee couldn’t handle rent by herself. Maybe Renee’s credit is bad, and she couldn’t get the apartment in her name. So how long exactly does she think she’ll need to crash in Adrian’s spare room? Figure it out on paper. Together. If Renee is trying to be all secretive about how much she makes, how much she has saved up, etc., maybe she should try sleeping on her mom’s spare couch instead. Now ain’t the time to be withholding important information. If this is you, do you need a year? Ask up front for a year. Don’t let a year just creep up on either of you. Make sure both of you have a signed and dated sheet of paper that says the living arrangement expires exactly one year from now.

#2. Discuss and determine how to handle the unanticipated but totally related circumstances that the live-in arrangement could present.  We’re emotional beings, and sometimes emotions take over when we’re distressed. We don’t think clearly or see the full picture. Adrian wanted to protect and help her sister. (The guy was a complete jerk, and Renee needed to get away from him.) Adrian wasn’t thinking about how she’d feel two months later when her sister hadn’t contributed anything towards groceries, took long showers which made the water bill go up, camped out on the family room couch and took over the TV’s remote control and stayed up late watching Law & Order reruns, which kept the entire household up. Renee wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was merely living her life and getting herself back together, which is EXACTLY what Adrian offered. Adrian should have been clear upfront: “My water bill is $60 a month, anything above that I’ll need you to cover. You’ll have to buy your own groceries. I watch HGTV on Tuesdays and all of ABC’s TGIT, so don’t be in my favorite spot or near the remote control on those nights. And we shut the house down at 10 p.m. every night. Which means, unless you watch TV with headphones, or can read lips, you can’t have it on after that because these walls are thin.”

See how this works, people? Boundaries. Everyone is clear. No hurt feelings.

#3. Don’t shy away from asking the tough questions. When your family comes to stay with a one-way ticket, you gotta ask some tough questions before they land. You MUST ask how long they plan to stay; you MUST ask them their plan to get out of their current situation; and you MUST ask them to contribute to household expenses if you’ll need it. If you don’t need it, how else can they help you? Cleaning isn’t my thing. Cooking dinner either, truth be told. When my niece and sister stayed with me for a while, the house was always neat and there was always something cooking on the stove. They’re being around made MY life easier. So we were mutually helping each other out.

#4. Map out the plan. NOW is the time to help. Help your family member make a list of priorities that lead to a plan that can be executed and completed. A plan has a beginning, a midpoint, and an end. Checkpoints should be put into place to determine if they are headed in the right direction toward that plan. Staying for a year? Need $3,000 for first and last month’s rent? That’s $250 a month. Ask to see their bank statement every three months to be sure their savings account is growing exponentially. Don’t assume they are saving. Help them make a budget so that some saving can begin.

#5. Don’t be afraid to decline helping out. If your family member doesn’t want to live by your rules, or you’ve got a lot going on in your own life, you have every right to say, “Sorry, I can’t help right now.” Trust me, that’s much better than yelling “Get Out!” later on.

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