For many years, Rudy Ruttimann would overwork to provide for her family and community to ensure that they never had to experience the severe poverty she faced as a teenager.

At 15, she had fled an abusive childhood home in Saskatoon and hitchhiked her way to Toronto. Over the next five years, she spent time living on the streets and in shelters until she finally found a room in a home for those experiencing homelessness.

Ruttimann eventually went on to marry and have three children, but since her husband was an aspiring singer-songwriter who didn’t earn money or want to get another job to bring in extra income, Ruttimann ended up working long hours and multiple jobs to support everyone.

The dynamic became so that her partner never had to worry about finances, while she overcompensated to ensure everyone was taken care of.

“I kept enabling it because I had to make the situation work for my kids so they wouldn’t have to live the way I did,” Ruttimann said. “I couldn’t and wouldn’t stand up to it.”

While Ruttimann stopped enabling her spouse after the relationship ended, she continued to do so in other ways by accepting lower wages for work — and not negotiating for more — as well as being quick to offer money to her children when they become adults instead of helping them build their capacity to manage their own sticky situations, she says.

Chantel Chapman, financial trauma researcher and co-founder of the financial literacy program The Trauma of Money, says the number one type of money disorder she sees in her program is financial enabling.

“Financial enablers often put themselves at financial risk in an effort to help others,” Chapman says. “And, they have trouble saying ‘no’ to financial requests from friends, children and other family members, and may avoid making clear arrangements for repayments of loans,” she adds, referencing a definition from psychologists Dr. Brad and Dr. Ted Klontz.

The reason it’s called financial enabling is because it can enable someone else’s dependency on you, she adds.

In Ruttimann’s case there were both financial and personal risks involved. Because she was overextending herself to cover both her husband’s and kids’ expenses, she didn’t get to spend as much time with her children as she would have liked — although they always maintained a strong relationship and remain close today, she says.

When her and her husband eventually divorced, she realized just how much debt he had racked up under her name when using her credit cards. She was on the hook for that debt when she moved out to began again with her children.

Caval Olson-Lepage, a certified financial planner with Affinity Wealth Management, says she most often sees financial enabling in the form of parents repeatedly helping their adult children out of sticky situations, like credit card debt, but it can happen in all types of relationships.

While parents typically feel a duty to provide for their kids, it can cross a line when children have grown and that feeling of responsibility causes financial harm to the enabler.

For instance, for one of Olson-Lepage’s clients, what started as a gift to help secure a child’s housing, turned into large withdrawals to help fund home renovations.

“It can lead to trouble if you’re depleting retirement savings to the point where you won’t be able to recover from it if your children don’t pay you back,” Olson-Lepage says.

The situation can also happen in reverse, with a child who is constantly covering costs for their parents.

Friends are also not immune from enabling each other. In this scenario, it could be a friend always picking up the tab for others, leading friends to expect that on an ongoing basis creating an overspending habit in the enabler.

Chapman said financial enabling is not just relegated to friends and family. This can result in “underearning and undercharging” when it comes to work — as well as a tendency to overwork.

When it comes to why we financially enable, Chapman says the behaviour is actually a trauma response. While we typically think of “fight, flight or freeze” as physiological changes that happen in the body and mind when a person feels threatened, there’s another trauma response called “fawning” that means you people please in order to feel safe or worthy.

Why this happens is because there’s something that happened in that person’s lifetime, or potentially their ancestral lineage, that caused them to feel unsafe, unworthy or unloved, she says.

“If we feel unsafe, if we feel like we don’t belong or that we’ve lost a connection to our worthiness or the people around us, it makes sense to try and tell our nervous system that we’re safe. We’re going to people please and use our money as a ‘please like me’ fund.”

So, how do you stop financially enabling?

The first step is identifying the behaviour and recognizing how it’s making you feel. For many, that feeling can be resentment since people don’t typically want to be in an enabling codependent relationship for long periods of time, Chapman says.

Then, since financial enabling is a trauma response, you’ll need to regulate your nervous system, like focusing on your breathing or spending time in nature or other methods, Chapman says.

The next step is to connect with your values. In friendships, for example, you may realize that you value friendships based on reciprocity, and that you shouldn’t have to — and don’t have to — pay for lunch to feel accepted or included.

Reflecting on those values can also determine when it makes sense to pay for others and when it doesn’t. If you value sharing wealth among family or wealth redistribution, in general, it makes sense to provide a child with a down payment for a first home or give money to others.

What defines that behaviour from a money disorder is that the disordered behaviour comes from feelings of fear or unworthiness, and it impacts your own financial situation negatively.

“As we say in the codependence recovery world, you really need to put your own air mask on first to be able to show up and be of service and support and share with others,” Chapman says.

Setting boundaries is another important step. If the behaviour has gone on for a long time, others will come to expect that financial support, so it’s important to be clear and direct, Olson-Lepage says.

For example, you might say that you will no longer be able to cover certain costs or you might provide a timeline of when financial support will end. This could also include outlining a loan repayment period if you’re often providing loans that aren’t repaid, she says.

You can also state that you’re willing to provide support in other ways and specify how, Olson-Lepage says.

And, when it comes to situations where friends or family don’t have the money to do certain things, like buy a meal at a restaurant, find different activities you can do together that don’t cost money. There shouldn’t be an obligation to pay just so that you can spend time together, she says.

Chapman’s last piece of advice for financial enablers is to seek community support, which can come through groups like Codependents Anonymous, Underearners Anonymous and Overspenders Anonymous. The enabler might also want to explore mental health support around why they have this trauma-based response to begin with.

Over the last five years, Ruttimann has mostly stopped her financial enabling habits, and says therapy has helped.

“Through therapy, I realized that my kids were OK and that I don’t have to worry so much or work as hard to financially save them,” she says. “They are quite capable.”

She has also recovered from the financial hardships she experienced earlier in life and went on to buy a home with her current wife.

Ruttimann’s advice to others caught up in financial enabling is to figure out what your values are so that you can live in a way that best serves you.

“If the drive to earn money and overextend yourself with that money is coming from a place of fear, there’s something wrong there, and you’ll miss out on the joys of life.”