Pay Dirt is Slate’s new advice column examining money and relationships. Every week, columnists Elizabeth Spiers and Athena Valentine will tackle your thorny financial questions. Have a money question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My grandmother has been harassing me nonstop about having children for years, and now that I have a steady boyfriend, she’s been ramping up the comments, begging, crying, and even talking to my boyfriend, saying, “I need to carry on the family line.” I’m 36 and have known for many years I don’t want children, and this has been exacerbated by the fact that we have extensive medical problems on both sides that I don’t wish to pass on. She’s now threatening to pull financial help that she very occasionally provides if I don’t have a child ASAP. I’m now at the point where I’m considering forging a doctor’s letter saying I’m barren to get her off my case, even if it means losing the small amount of help I get from her. Is it ethically wrong?
Dear Grandma’s Blackmail,
You and I are about the same age, so I feel comfortable saying that our grandmas are from a different era. (If I didn’t know better, I would suspect your grandma is from Game of Thrones, and she’s trying to ensure Cersei doesn’t steal the North from you.) But her age and upbringing don’t excuse her behavior or make it any less frustrating for you.
While I wouldn’t say a doctor’s note is ethically wrong, it does give off getting-out-of-middle-school-gym-class vibes, and no one wants to return to middle school. Plus, it’s almost always better to be honest and straightforward while establishing boundaries than to rely on lies, even small ones. The next time Grandma brings up children, calmly explain to her that you are not in a place to have them. Thank her for her past financial support and share that if she feels she can no longer continue, you understand entirely. Then tell her you will not be offering any more details on this matter nor discussing it any further, and change the subject. If she presses on, walk away, hang up, or whatever you need to do to be clear it’s no longer a topic for discussion. Rinse and repeat as needed.
Family dynamics are tricky, though, and establishing boundaries can be emotionally fraught. If you think you need additional support, do not be afraid to reach out to your boyfriend, a trusted friend, or a professional. Good luck!
Dear Pay Dirt,
My recently widowed father is spending a lot more money than I think he used to. I always thought he was frugal, but now it seems like he is doing a lot of retail therapy. New packages every day, etc. What’s the approach here? I’m not interested in inheritance, but I do want him to be able to take care of himself financially, and he is likely to be alive at least another 20 years. I also don’t actually know how much money he has. Are there financial structures I can encourage him toward starting? He has good health care but also moved into a big house that has a mortgage (but no stairs).
Dear Retail Coping,
I want to start by saying I am very sorry for your and your father’s loss. It’s definitely possible your dad is using retail therapy as a coping mechanism. Death can remind us that our time is short, so he may be spending on things he always wishes he had bought. He might also be taking up a new hobby that requires equipment to stay busy or redecorating the house—both things that help people move on.
I think you should plan to have two separate conversations with your father, but one may lead into another. First, ask him about his newfound spending habits. Something kind and open-ended like: “Seems like you’ve been keeping the delivery man busy. Where are the good sales?” Approaching this conversation with a nonjudgmental attitude should help him to speak freely and give you the information you need to figure out if he needs help.
Then ask him about his finances. Start with the house: “I know you moved into this house recently. Are you liking it? Is there anything I should know about it if you need my help one day?” Then follow up with his retirement accounts: “Are you good on retirement? Have you checked in with a financial planner lately? I know loss is hard, and your plans may have changed, so I wanted to check in with you on finances.” You can ask if he’d be willing to share account information or locations of other important documents with you in case of emergency. If you’re unsure whether he has a will and power of attorney, you can ask him about that as well and offer to arrange a meeting with an estate attorney if he doesn’t.
I would also prepare yourself if he chooses not to discuss things with you. He’s an adult, and he’s entitled to keep that information private if he chooses. If he decides mum’s the word, you can still talk to an estate lawyer or a financial planner to see if there is anything you can do without him in case he needs your assistance one day.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My boyfriend earns approximately 25 percent more than I do. (We’re gay guys, if that matters.)
We’ve always split restaurant checks and other things like that, and sometimes he buys bigger-ticket items, like a hotel during travel, and doesn’t ask for money. Now we’re planning to move in together after a few years, and he wants to split the rent and bills evenly. He feels wary about adjusting rent and bills based on our incomes for not very complicated reasons—splitting it just feels fair to him.
I know this is not hugely relevant to who should pay what, but in this arrangement, my rent will increase by 50 to 60 percent, and his will decrease by about 30 percent, because he already lives alone and I don’t, and I also am paying off more debts, so my monthly bills are higher (almost done!). This isn’t a deal-breaker for me exactly, but 1) can you give me a very declarative and personal ruling about what is fair in situations like this, and 2) how should I frame the discussion with him beyond the very basic communication we’ve done so far?
—Half and Half
Dear Half and Half,
I cannot give you a declarative ruling, because every relationship has its own unique set of circumstances. It sounds like you would be losing a lot of financial ground by moving in with him, which isn’t fair to you, nor does it make financial sense. You’re heading in the right direction with your debt (congrats!), and a significant rent increase would change that, so it’s worth having a conversation with him about it.
Start by sharing all the financial progress you’ve been making. Let him know you’d love to move forward with him, but a significant increase in living expenses would be hard for you. Explain that while it is your debt, it’s essential for your own future and your future as a couple to pay it off sooner, and a higher share of rent would mean slower progress. Then ask him if he would be willing to pay a bit more now, then reassess again in the future, once your debts are taken care of and you have more flexibility. He may say no, and if he does, that’s OK. It’s up to you to decide what’s best for you financially and for your relationship. Maybe that includes moving forward anyway. Maybe that includes delaying the move. (Relationships have no rule that states you must move in together by a certain date.) Having a healthy relationship with a wealthier significant other while maintaining a healthy relationship with your own money can be challenging, but it can be done. Keep an open line of communication and stay flexible, but know your limits.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I work for my aunt and uncle’s business, mainly doing bookkeeping and clerical work. Their company is a highly technical field, and it can be hard to find people who have the right training for it. In April 2020, right as things began shutting down, one of our employees, “Mark,” just stopped showing up to work. No call, no email, no notice.
He didn’t answer anyone’s messages and refused to return certain equipment that belonged to the company that was in his possession. It was a nightmare for us, we had to find very expensive subcontractors at the last minute, and everyone was working 16-hour days, several days in a row, just to make up for Mark’s absence.
We later found out that this is not the first time he just stopped showing up for work. Now we got a notice saying he had filed for unemployment and that we had laid him off due to COVID, which is not true at all.
This business is very much essential and stayed open throughout. It’s also mostly solo work, so there also isn’t that much of a danger during the pandemic. I’m more at risk working in the office. My aunt and uncle are determined to fight his request for unemployment, but I’m uneasy about it. He may actually need financial help. Is it ethical to contest his unemployment?
—Not Really Unemployed
Dear Not Really Employed,
Mark sounds like a dud. No-call no-shows are juvenile and unprofessional. Even giving Mark the benefit of a doubt, such as having personal issues he wished not share with your aunt and uncle, it’s still no excuse for quitting without notice, let alone refusing to return expensive equipment.
I think you should contest his unemployment claim without guilt. He’s lying about being falsely laid off, and that’s unethical—especially when so many others have legitimately lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Many still need their unemployment yet can’t access it due to state backlogs. Plus, every time an employee files for unemployment, it hurts your aunt and uncle—more claims mean more company revenue they have to contribute to taxes that cover unemployment insurance. Your aunt and uncle are in the right, and the best thing you can do is make sure they have all of the tools needed to contest his claim.
More Advice From Slate
I have two grown children, Thing 1, 25, and Thing 2, 20. T1 has always been an excellent artist and it was apparent from a young age that she would be one professionally. So when she was in college (where she had a part-time campus designer job) during the summers, we allowed her not to work in a formal job, as she occupied herself learning Photoshop, learning how to make websites, working on her online comic, and doing commissions. The final year, she tried to find a summer internship but was unsuccessful. Today, she has a savings account full of money and has her own apartment.
T2 is an average student whose main occupation is playing D&D and video games. We gave him a car and give him $200 a month for gas and expenses. He also has a small inheritance of about $4,000 in his savings. He is now facing his second summer break and we are insisting that he get a job—preferably an internship in his field. And he is having a fit about it. He calls out that we didn’t force T1 to get a job and says we are being unfair. He complains he can’t find one. He insists he will not work full time or maybe won’t work at all. I have told him that if he doesn’t, he will get no money from us.
Please tell me I’m being reasonable. He’s been so depressed and volatile in recent years—and lazy. I believe that in addition to gaining valuable experience, making connections, and making some money, working will help him gain confidence and lessen his depression.
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