My mother tithes 10 percent -- but she can't make her house payments

We're happy to help with her second mortgage -- but not if the money goes to her church.

By Cary Tennis
Published December 8, 2006 12:01PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My 60-year-old mother is struggling financially. She divorced her second husband five years ago and has had to go back to work. Sadly, she never went to college or focused on a career because she was always content to be a wife and a mother. So the only job she could find was in retail. She works long hours on her feet and is the only woman on a large sales team competing for sales commissions.

Though she works hard, she can't afford her monthly mortgage and other bills. This past year, my husband and I offered to help her with her mortgage. She has two mortgages (one of those 80/20 loans). We pay the second mortgage, which is an interest-only variable loan at present.

This past weekend, we had Mom over for dinner. As always, she mentioned her church, and the subject of her tithing payments came up. A couple of years ago, my mom became very involved with a Christian church in our city and has become quite a devout "born again" type Christian. (I'm not really sure if she's officially defined as "born again," but she often talks about being "saved," the "rapture" and how I will go to hell if I don't "accept Christ.")

The tithing comment was a surprise to me. I didn't realize she paid tithing. Apparently, she gives 10 percent of her earnings to her church. A quick calculation revealed that 10 percent of her yearly income (which does vary somewhat because she's in sales) is about the amount my husband and I pay for her second mortgage.

Cary, this knowledge about her tithing payments has me troubled.

First, because my husband and I recently purchased a house of our own and are now involved in the remodeling, maintenance and upkeep issues all homeowners face, that money we give to Mom every month could certainly be put to good use in covering our own financial responsibilities, which have increased quite a bit.

Second, I am an atheist. I don't believe in Mom's god. I don't subscribe to her ideas about the rapture or going to hell or needing to be saved. In fact, we've had some major blowups in the past when she's persisted in nagging me about religion. We finally agreed to disagree in order to keep the peace.

I resent paying my mother's second mortgage when she gives money away to her church in tithing that could cover the bill. Even writing that statement makes me feel like a bad daughter.

In many ways, I greatly respect my mom. She's a survivor. She's gone through hell. She put aside her own wants and needs to take care of us kids and stick by her abusive husbands. She gets up every day and works at what must be a horrible job, where she's browbeaten and intimidated and made to feel old and useless.

I feel obligated to help my mom; she's my mom. You help your family when they need help. But, damn, I'm having a hard time knowing about those tithing payments!

However, I also feel like I have no right to an opinion about how she spends her money. Wouldn't that be like giving someone a gift of cash and then specifying how they should spend it? Once you give the gift, shouldn't you take yourself out of the equation?

Mom can't cover her mortgage payments. Mom struggles financially. Mom chooses to pay tithing. For her, I guess these things aren't related. She believes her tithes are required by her god and are a contribution she makes toward her salvation.

I believe her high mortgage is her choice, and, if she's got the money to do it, she should pay for the mortgage rather than pay tithing. (She won't downsize her home; we've discussed this with her numerous times.)

My husband was also taken aback by the tithing comment. But when I told him how angry I was, and that I wanted to stop paying her mortgage, he rightly pointed out that I would be igniting an atom bomb of maternal recriminations and personal guilt.

What should I do?

Unwilling Tithing Payer

Dear Unwilling Tither,

This situation requires you to be deviously scrupulous. You of course want to help your mother. You can help her far more if you do what is both wise and prudent from a financial standpoint and also what is emotionally satisfying. And if you do it right and you have a little luck, you don't even have to lie too much.

What I suggest you do is tell your mother you have consulted your accountant and here is what he or she says. In order to be not only devious but scrupulous, you really do have to consult your accountant. If you do not have one, find one -- preferably one with whom you can have a friendly and confidential discussion. Explain to the accountant that you are spending a good bit of money now to help your mother live a lifestyle that does not allow her or you to save much for later, in, say, 15 to 20 years, when she may very likely need help much more than she does now. Ask the accountant to set up an aggressive saving plan that cuts expenditures now in order to save for a future in which funds may be much more needed, and her ability to work much more curtailed.

If the accountant is perceptive, you might explain the whole damn deal. The point is to get this on a professional footing and stay away from the tithing issue altogether. Maybe we'll go into the tithing thing in a minute, but the key is to make some financial decisions based on real-world numbers and concerns. From what you tell me, that does not sound hard to do: Your mother is not meeting her monthly expenses. That's a very bottom-line-type concern.

Then you go to your mother and say, Unfortunately, Mom ... dear mother of mine, lovely sweet hardworking sacrificing giver of life to your loving and adoring children ... we've had a long, difficult meeting with our accountant and we are not saving enough for the future. We are going to have to cut back on our help to you. Is there any place you know of that you can save?

I wonder what she will do. It's up to her. She might say, Well, I could cut back on the tithing ...

The thing to remember is that you are doing the right thing for your mother. You are saving for her future, when she may really need it. This way you avoid a direct confrontation about religion, but are able to follow your own principles as well. You're not abandoning her. You're doing the prudent thing that she apparently is not willing or able to do. She doesn't really need your help now. But she may very much need it later.

Sound like a plan?

I personally will be very interested to see what she does. Will she cut back on her tithing? What does she have to fear? I mean, you accept Christ as your savior and you're saved, right? What more could you want? Does tithing get you an upgrade? Is there business class in heaven?

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