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When One Sibling Has More Money Than Another

Best ways for adult siblings to avoid family rifts over finances

By Randi Mazzella

If you have a brother or sister with substantially more income and wealth than you — or substantially less — you might not find the situation very funny. But Michael Colton, 45, co-creator of the new ABC sitcom "Home Economics," built his show all around that experience. Partly because he's lived it.

A large family smiling outside.
In the new ABC comedy "Home Economics," three siblings have very different financial stories  |  Credit: ABC

"There are arguments and conflicts I have with my siblings where money is the subtext and that led me to think there could be a TV show there," said Colton, who dreamed up the show with John Aboud.

"Unfortunately, these income gaps can create or aggravate some other common issues within a family, like jealousy and resentment."

On "Home Economics," oldest brother Tom (Topher Grace) is a middle-class struggling author, middle sibling Sarah (Caitlin McGee) is a social worker who's barely making ends meet and youngest brother Connor (Jimmy Tatro) runs a private-equity firm and is very well-off.

Making Family Money Funny on TV

The show's premise, and Colton's own relationship with his siblings, are not uncommon. In fact, they may be growing more likely. But unlike the sitcom, things often aren't very funny when there's a big financial disparity among brothers and sisters.

"As the wealth gap widens nationwide, the familial wealth gap is becoming more pronounced than ever and the problem is getting worse," said Brian Dechesarem, founder of the financial modeling training firm Breaking Into Wall Street. "We're bound to run into more wealth differentiation between adult family members. And unfortunately, these income gaps can create or aggravate some other common issues within a family, like jealousy and resentment."

Even when children grow up together, they may see the world differently when it comes to financial matters, said Sahirenys Pierce of the Poised Finance & Lifestyle website. "Even if you were raised under the same household, that doesn't mean that as grown-ups, you have the same perception of money as the rest of your family," Pierce said.

Sometimes money plays a role in our lives without our even realizing it.

That's why Colton and Aboud decided to include a dollar amount in the title of every episode of "Home Economics." "We liked the idea that even if money is not at the forefront of a particular episode, it's always present," Colton said. "It's the lens through which the characters look at the world. We are always aware that everything comes with a cost attached."

In Episode 4 (Triple Scoop of Ice Cream $6.39), for example, Tom and Sarah are upset to learn their parents have been spending more time with Connor and his child than either of their families. They believe Connor is their parents' favorite because he's financially successful and can offer them more than Tom or Sarah can.

Judy Lin Walsh, a principal at Banyan Global, which advises family enterprises,  noted that "siblings are naturally competitive. Starting from childhood, they've had to compete for resources — their parents' time, affection and attention."

So, she added, "Money can become just another arena for competition, particularly among adult siblings who choose different career paths and have varying degrees of success in their chosen field."

Money can then be seen by them as a tangible way to measure success.

"It's not everything, but other factors like personal happiness and fulfillment are harder to measure," said Walsh. "So, money is used as the default measuring stick and it becomes the lightning rod for all of the big emotions siblings feel towards one other."

When Sibling Finances Take Different Paths

Colton echoes that. He remembers a time several years ago when he was having trouble finding work. "For a few months, I was collecting unemployment. Around that time, my twin brother, who works in private equity, sold a company and personally made seven million dollars. Or maybe it was ten million? At that level, does it even matter? As you can imagine, this provoked feelings of jealousy and pride and anxiety, all at the same time."

Most siblings begin adulthood at the same financial starting point, so it's hard not to be comparative. "If one does 'better' than another, the difference is magnified because it can't be attributed to some natural advantage one person had over the other," said Walsh.

And then, "inevitability, there becomes inequality as they become adults through differences in talent, hard work, and luck," Walsh added.

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Without realizing it, adult siblings may enter into a false narrative about one another, festering negative feelings.

 "Sometimes there are mental blockers that create resentment with siblings about money and lifestyle," said Pierce. "We ignore the real story of why one sibling is doing better or worse financially."

Even brothers and sisters with good relationships can struggle with issues relating to their financial disparities. Said Colton: "Something as simple as 'How should we spend the afternoon with our kids?' can become fraught, when money is an issue for certain siblings but not for others."

Money as a Measuring Stick

Siblings can become judgmental of one another's lifestyle or financial choices. "We all judge using a different measuring stick," said Walsh. "There is no one right way to spend." And value shaming of any form is destructive to family harmony, she noted.

Carissa Coulston, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert at The Eternity Rose website explained how. "A more well-off sibling may live in a nicer house or drive a better car — things that obviously spell out their success in life. The less financially secure sibling may feel disappointed in themselves and maybe even ashamed or embarrassed that they failed to do as well as their sibling."

And sometimes, when a well-off sibling tries to be helpful to brother or sister, tension arises.

"When in doubt, a simple rule of thumb to keep the peace if you have different lifestyles is to live the life of the less well-off sibling when you're together."

That played out in another TV show recently: NBC's "This is Us." There, Hollywood actor brother Kevin wanted to lend a financial hand to his sister Kate when her husband Toby lost his job. The generous offer was made with no strings or ill-intentions. But Toby found the gesture patronizing, insulted because he felt Kevin's offer implied that he couldn't provide for his family.

Colton's take: "It's expected that a parent will provide (for the family). When it's a sibling who's doing the providing, that's when jealousy and anxiety and guilt come into play."

Conversely, well-off siblings can take offense by actions of their brothers or sisters. Said Coulston: "Resentment can easily set in if the financially secure brother or sister feels that they are being taken for granted or have become nothing more than a cash cow."

Advice for Siblings With Financial Disparities

But there are some ways to reduce tensions.

In certain families, it works best for each sibling to be on their own financially and contribute equally for family expenses, like vacations together or family reunions, regardless of income. In others, a well-off sibling might assume financial responsibility for everyone.

Most adult siblings with financial disparities try to find a middle ground. At that family vacation or reunion, the well-off one might choose to contribute more financially.

Said Walsh: "When in doubt, a simple rule of thumb to keep the peace if you have different lifestyles is to live the life of the less well-off sibling when you're together." 

Three siblings standing arm in arm, smiling.
The sibs from the new ABC comedy "Home Economics"  |  Credit: ABC

If a brother or sister needs money for something specific (college education or a down payment for a home, for example), the well-off sibling may volunteer to help or be asked for assistance. Either way, both parties need to agree whether the money will be a gift or a loan. If it's a loan, the repayment terms should be in writing, so there are no conflicts down the road.

Daniel R. Hill, a financial planner and president of Hill Wealth Strategies in Richmond, Va., believes the best solution is when everyone is allowed to contribute to a joint responsibility in some way.

"While the well-off sibling may contribute more to the extended family financially, other siblings may do more in terms of hands-on-care — for older parents or babysitting or cooking at family events. This approach allows all siblings to feel valued, appreciated and respected."

Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist and relationship coach in Boulder, Colo., believes family members need to be cognizant of how they approach the topic of money with each other.

"If you're the sibling who earns less, watch out for the trap of envying your sibling. Envy will lead to negative feelings toward them," said Fisher. "Instead, celebrate your sibling's success, remind yourself of the hard work they went through to earn their income and remind yourself of the steps you could take to increase your income."

Conversely, if you're the sibling who earns more, don't act superior.

 "Your income doesn't make you a better person," said Fisher. "Remind yourself of the hardships your sibling has gone through that have hindered their income-making. Also, remember the positive qualities about your sibling and the things you have in common."

And if financial disparities are causing a rift, try speaking honestly to your sibling. Advised Walsh: "Be aware and sensitive to differences. Take an extra moment to reflect on how your behavior could be received by someone else."

Colton believes talking about these issues is always better than bottling them up.

 "If you don't air out your concerns, then the problems will fester. And for me, sensitive subjects always are more approachable with a dash of humor. Especially when, say, a sibling bought their house from Matt Damon." he said.

That's a plotline in his TV show. In real life, Colton's brother did not buy Matt Damon's house.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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