Welcome to Ask the Bills, where every two weeks Helaine Olen answers readers’ questions about their most nagging personal finance and financial etiquette dilemmas. Seeking advice on a money issue? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband and I have been married for nearly 20 years. For all but four of them, I’ve worked full-time. He’s in sales and for the past 12 years has made at least 10 times my salary. We’re very lucky, and he has saved most of it. Last time I calculated, for the past 10 years we’ve saved and interested at least 70 percent of our annual income for our children’s college and our retirement. But we don’t communicate well about money. I handle our monthly expenses out of an account both of our paychecks are deposited into. He then removes all but my monthly allotment for most of our bills and living expenses. Over the past 12 years I’ve used personal credit cards to cover when there isn’t enough money. Through the years, this has caused tremendous upsets. I’ve lied about balances to diffuse confrontations. The lack of trust really hurts our marriage. Now the debt is becoming unmanageable. My side of the issue is his lack of realism about family spending. We don’t have a maid, I drive an older car, and do my best to live within a budget, but I refuse to put off going to the grocery store till payday or pass on dinner with friends or a concert while our family is in the top 1 percent of earners in the entire country. These are not luxuries. These are basic, middle-class activities. I am probably the only bank customer who came in one day for a cash advance on her credit card so our bank account wouldn’t overdraw and the next week came in to pay off our home mortgage. We resent each other’s viewpoint. I fully accept the criticism that I caused the eroding of trust in our marriage, but due to his volatile reactions and somewhat adversarial day-to-day style, especially concerning money, coming clean about the credit-card debt doesn’t seem to be an option. What do I do?
You’re not facing a money problem—you’re facing a marriage problem. Put another way, it sounds like your husband has deep-seated issues with anger and control that he expresses via money. And they are not your issues, no matter how much your gaslighting spouse claims they are. The spending you’re describing isn’t out of the ordinary. And I don’t care if one spouse outearns the other by a factor of 100. Marriage is an arrangement between equals. One partner doesn’t get to dictate the terms simply because he’s a man or because he brings in more money.
So stop living in a financial dictatorship. You and your husband need to sit down and agree on a realistic spending and saving plan, one that takes into account how much both of you spend on a monthly basis, and permits you to enjoy your life without resorting to cash advances or going without.
My thoughts don’t end there, however. It strikes me that your disadvantage isn’t financial, so much as it stems from an aversion to confrontation. You’ve gone along with this for a long time, after all. And correcting things will take quite a bit of confrontation. Your husband’s behavior can only be called pathological, with a side of anger issues. (Yes, it always takes two in a marriage, and I’m not hearing your husband’s side of the story. But I truly can’t imagine what he could say to change my mind in this scenario.) Insisting that the two of you save more than 70 percent of your one-percenter joint income and refusing you enough money for a night out with the girls? That isn’t normal.
My advice? Get a few recommendations for marriage counselors. But also gather up your financial paperwork and get the name and number of a really good matrimonial lawyer. Don’t even think of confronting your husband until you’ve collected that information. Then tell him you need to talk it all over with a third party like a counselor who can navigate the two of you through these issues. Will he go along? Hopefully, but it could get nasty fast—as you already know from your past attempts to deal with it. I’m sorry, but you need to have your financial and legal ducks in a row. All I can add is I truly believe you’ll be better off for dealing with it once and for all.
I need a little sense and perspective. I am the secondary executor for my family’s trust and will be the primary one after my mother passes. She’s an 80-year-old widow in good health, but she lives by herself and she’s been increasingly lonely since my father died four years ago. I live a six-hour drive away and my two sisters each live three hours from her. We all realize she needs to be closer, and over the past few years have looked for suitable housing. She’s currently living in a home worth $240,000, one that’s fully paid for. One of my sisters and her husband own a lot next door to their house. My brother-in-law is a contractor, and he built a home on it. It’s now complete, with a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage and a $1,400 monthly payment. My mother is planning to sell her house and transition to this home next spring. But my brother-in-law and sister-in-law don’t want to sell the home to her. Rather, they want my mother to pay rent—i.e., cover the mortgage. I have a number of questions about this, including the tax ramifications, whether we should put the money from the home sale into the trust or into another account for rainy-day expenses. The trust was set up for each sibling to inherit a third of the estate. When my mother dies, what is the proper way to ensure the split? Does the value of the rental house get deducted from my sister’s share? I want to make sure things get structured correctly now so there aren’t hard feelings and family drama in the future.
I have a feeling you wrote me because you think selling your mom’s house and allowing her to rent from your sister is a bad idea. You’d be right!
No, I don’t think your mom should continue to live in isolation three to six hours away from her kids. It’s a great idea for her to live near one of you. But unless she’s a multimillionaire, I would suggest she continue to own. We want your mom to have a guaranteed place to live to the end of her days. If she rents, there’s always a chance she could outlive everything but her social security check and end up in a tough spot. Yes, yes, she’d be renting from your sister. But that might not always be the case. While it’s hard for us to imagine our lives as anything but what they are right now, things do change. Your sister and her husband could decide, for any number of reasons, to sell that home. They might need to for financial reasons. They could divorce. They could—I hate to say it—decide they can’t stand living next door to mom. And these possibilities are only the first problem! The other is that this situation leaves you and your sisters primed for a fight over money after your mother dies. The sister living next door might well think she deserves more than one-third of the estate, given how much more she’ll almost certainly do for mom. She might ultimately be giving up money to do it—what if mom lives for decades while the rent remains $1,400 a month? You and your other sister, meanwhile, might come to feel that your sister is earning $1,400 a month for taking care of mom.
How to lessen the chances of this? When mom moves, she should buy a home from a stranger.