There are ways to lend a hand without lending a dime.

When someone you love is struggling with debt, it can be hard to sit idle as you watch them deal with stress, anxiety and financial uncertainty. And if you have the knowledge or means to help, it’s only natural to want to intervene.

But helping someone change their financial behavior is no small matter, and getting involved comes with serious risks. After all, if things go badly, it can damage a relationship you care about deeply.

That’s why it’s important to know the right ways to help them through this troubled time.

While there’s no sure-fire, step-by-step formula for helping someone overcome their debt problems, below are three best practices I’ve learned from my time as a certified financial planner, as well as the hundreds of reader emails I get running the popular personal finance blog The Ways To Wealth.

Tip #1: Understand Their Goals

Understand Their Goals
If you’ve read your fair share of personal finance books and blogs, you may be inclined to open up the conversation by talking about different debt payoff strategies, like the popular debt snowball or debt avalanche methods.

While those may be the right strategies for your friends or loved ones to embrace, it’s best to save that conversation for later. Your first step should be learning about what’s most important to them, both in terms of their finances and their broader life goals.

A great question to start with is something like this: “What would be the first thing you’d do if you were debt-free?”

That’s because what really inspires people to take action is not the goal of becoming debt-free, but rather goals like having more flexibility with their time or being able to leave a job that isn’t the right fit to pursue something that fills them with joy and satisfaction.

Goals like these have concrete benefits – people can see specifically how taking action to get out of debt can improve their quality of life.

So it’s your job to discover what the person you’re trying to help cares about enough to commit to real change; to understand what will serve as a strong enough motivator to carry them through what is often a long and difficult process.

Tip #2: Prioritize One Small Goal

Prioritize One Small Goal
Once you know what’s important to them, you can start discussing the actual strategies that can help them achieve their goals.

And while you can certainly make a list of strategies, it’s best to start by thinking small and focusing on one easy-to-accomplish goal.

For example, instead of building a six-month emergency fund – a tough task for even the financially disciplined – focus on helping them save $500. Similarly, instead of focusing on the long-term goal of becoming debt-free, set a short-term goal to pay off the debt with the smallest balance first.

Why not start big?

Think of this process like a fitness routine for someone who has just started working out. A good personal trainer knows that starting Day 1 of the new regimen with complex movements and heavy weights can be intimidating, overwhelming and discouraging. It’s a good way to prevent a person from showing up for Day 2.

Instead, a good trainer meets people where they are, even if that place isn’t ideal. If that means walking on a treadmill for five minutes, that’s fine – it’s five minutes more than they walked yesterday. And tomorrow, maybe they’ll go for six, and then seven, and on and on until they can start to feel how the time and effort they’re investing is improving their health and well-being.

A good mindset to have at this stage is that you’re trying to help the person you care about build their financial muscle. Yes, it’s true – eventually, they’ll need to accomplish bigger financial goals. But first, they need a foundation to build upon. Hitting that first small goal is a great way to start laying blocks in that foundation.

Tip #3: Get Them Involved in a Community

Get Them Involved in a Community
Decades ago, the famed personal development speaker Jim Rohn famously said, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Today, this concept is backed by research.

In the best-selling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear writes:

As a general rule, the closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits. One groundbreaking study tracked twelve thousand people for thirty-two years and found that “a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he or she had a friend who became obese.” It works the other way, too. Another study found that if one person in a relationship lost weight, the other partner would also slim down about one-third of the time. Our friends and family provide a sort of invisible peer pressure that pulls us in their direction.

With this in mind, there are two steps you can take to help someone struggling with debt.

The first is being a great example yourself. The better you are with your own finances, the more likely it is that someone else will listen to you.

The second is helping them find a community where the natural behavior is to be wise with money.

There are dozens of supportive communities, both online and local, where living a debt-free life is normal behavior. A good example is the financial independence community, where you can find active Facebook groups, great podcasts, books, and local meetups.

In this community, taking out a high-interest loan to buy a new $40,000+ car – something that a fair amount of people do every day without thinking much about it – isn’t even on the radar. Being part of a supportive community that shares the values and habits your loved ones aspire to can help them stay focused on their goals and resist the urge to fall off the wagon.

Final Thoughts

Helping someone overcome their debt has very little to do with your financial knowledge – although that can certainly be a valuable asset, if you have it. What’s much more important is having high emotional intelligence, and understanding why and how people change their behavior. Those may not be the first skills one thinks of when it comes to personal finance, but in my experience, they’re the most crucial.

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About the Author

R.J. Weiss

R.J. Weiss

R.J. Weiss, founder, and editor of The Ways To Wealth is a Certified Financial Planner® and seasoned personal finance writer. R.J.’s career began in financial services working at a family independent insurance agency outside of Chicago, IL. He specialized in life, health, personal and small business insurance. During this time, R.J. obtained his CFP designation to expand his knowledge about how to create the right solutions for clients and offer them peace of mind knowing they were working with a fiduciary. Today, R.J. writes a financial website that helps millions of visitors a year. His website, The Ways To Wealth, shares proven ways to make money, save money and invest wisely.

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