Pay Dirt is Slate’s new money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My partner is admittedly bad with money. Due to the pandemic, he’s been out of work for a while and has been living off savings. I know he has debt, which he’s looking to clear with some inheritance, but he won’t tell me how this debt accrued. He was recently the victim of a scam that I tried to warn him about, but his desire to get out of his current situation overrode his best judgment, and he shut down my advice. Now he’s a few thousand dollars down and devastated. We had talked about moving in together, but I recently also lost my job, and my trust in him and hope for our future have been shaken. He is an excellent partner in all other respects—supportive, loving, and exceptionally kind. How can I rebuild a more positive relationship around money with him? Is it wise to even consider moving in together?
Dear Mistakes Happen,
Having debt is not a moral failing. It can be the result of bad decision-making, and that’s something that you have to pragmatically consider. If your partner is “bad with money,” it means that he lacks a particular skill set that he can probably acquire. There are nonprofits that work specifically to help people out of debt, and I think it’s reasonable to suggest to your partner that he get some third-party help on this front. He doesn’t have to deal with it by himself.
In the meantime, I think you have to be very honest with each other about what your financial situations are and how you see this playing out in the future. How does your partner plan to handle his debt? How do you plan to find a new job? These are issues you could be facing as a long-term couple anyway, and issues that a lot of long-term committed couples face unexpectedly. Look at this as a kind of blessing in disguise: Navigating these issues is incredibly tough, but you have an opportunity to do it upfront while you’re still thinking about whether you want a future together. If you can figure out how to manage this, it bodes well for your long-term prospects.
That said, I think it’s hard to deal with several big decisions at once, and I’d hold off on moving in together until you have some of this worked out. And by “worked out,” I don’t mean you’ve solved the problem, but that you both have a plan to get to a place that makes you both comfortable. Cohabitating for the first time is exciting but also puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. If you can, wait until you feel good about your mutual financial struggles and your plans to address them before signing a lease with him.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I are DINKs with separate accounts. We put the same percentage of our paychecks toward family expenses like rent, food, savings, etc. For what’s left, we each consider it our “play money.” Recently, my husband started making about three times what he used to make. We rearranged our bill structure for the sake of fairness, but now that he has more “play money,” he’s spending most of it on marijuana and fireworks (both legal in our state). I was thinking he could put money back (with my unequal contributions) for a nice cruise or something, but no, he’d rather get baked and launch mortar shells. This is inappropriate and unreasonable for a 50-year-old man, right? Do I have the right to try to steer him toward more reasonable ways of spending his play money?
—Fireworks at 4:20
Dear Fireworks at 4:20,
I think if you’ve mutually decided that what you do with your discretionary spending is an independent choice you make, your husband is pretty much allowed to spend it on pot and explosives. It seems like you don’t have any prior agreement to put your extra money toward something you’re saving up for, so I’m not sure you can change the terms because you don’t like how your husband is spending his share. Would it make you feel better if he were spending it on something you think is more age-appropriate, but you still can’t relate to? (First edition books, NFTs, obscure vinyl records?)
As is often the case, I don’t think your discomfort is really with your husband’s spending by itself. You ask if this is appropriate behavior for a 50-year-old man, and that seems to be what’s really bothering you. Your columnist is in her mid-40s and knows many 50-year-old men for whom fireworks and weed—how do I put this?—spark joy. But if you think this is a sign of something bigger—say, a lack of maturity on his part or a misalignment of your mutual interests—you should have a conversation about it. There are probably things you would enjoy doing together that would be equally fun for your husband and you could both contribute financially. Start there.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mother is single, in her mid-50s, and currently living with my grandmother who is in her 80s and (knock on wood!) in great health. A few years back, my mother’s mental health took a rapid downward turn, which spurred erratic and irresponsible behavior including gambling, stealing money from family members, and losing track of her taxes and bills. She had debt collectors contacting her daily. She lost the successful business she had built from the ground up, her home, and every bit of her money. Eventually she turned to suicide. Thankfully, her attempts were not successful, and she’s been able to take control of her emotions and has gotten back in most people’s good graces, even mine.
Mainly due to the gambling, she is in serious debt trouble. Because of this, she thinks she can’t take a real job. She spends most days watching TV and hanging out with my grandma. The few jobs she has held—part-time child care and cooking—were paid under the table. With what little she’s made, she isn’t saving a dollar toward the future. She often goes out to eat and (pre-COVID) to movies. When my grandmother passes (hopefully in many years, but still), she will lose the rental and be homeless. My husband and I have good jobs, but we also have a mortgage and a child. We have a 700-square-foot house. I’ve told her that her financial status fills me with anxiety and dread, since I know I will be forced to take her in and/or pay for her needs. She swears she’s never going to be my problem. I am feeling more and more resentful about a future that hasn’t occurred yet. Am I wrong to be angry? Should I just accept my financial fate?
Dear Mama Drama,
Your anger is understandable because you didn’t ask for this situation. You have your own life, anxieties, and stressful expenses, yet your mother keeps behaving as if her money troubles are not your burden, when surely she knows they are.
But you have two problems: One is that your mother has some mental health issues, and it seems like they’re not being addressed. She’s an addict who’s been suicidal before, and on top of that she seems unmotivated to do anything, which may indicate that she’s depressed. And if so, it makes sense that she’s going to do things like go out to eat and go to movies instead of save, because those are short-term distractions from her bigger problems. The second problem is that she seems to believe (and you seem to believe too) that her debt is preventing her from working, which I have to confess, I don’t quite understand. If she has debt, it’s true that someone could garnish her wages, but that generally only happens as a last resort. Every debt collector has an incentive to work with people in debt. They’d rather get a fraction of what your mother owes than nothing. If she’s taking money under the table, she’s probably afraid of the IRS, and that’s unfortunate because the IRS gets a bad rap for no good reason. They are the most willing to work with people who want to pay and can’t. I’m sure all of this scares the daylights out of your mother, but it’s not an excuse for her not to work if she can.
So I think you can do two things here that would be helpful to both of you: get her counseling for the mental health issues she has, which will better equip her to face the reality of her debt, and help her make those first few phone calls to negotiate the debt down. It will give her—and you—confidence that these problems are not insoluble and that you have a path forward that won’t bankrupt either of you and will allow her to return to real work.
Dear Pay Dirt,
The disruption and the upending of the journalism landscape has me in a pickle: My favorite writer has a new gig. They now write a column under the banner of a respected large brand. The new writing is very good, and there are “subscribe here” links to pay for the excellent content. However, the writer also has a Substack newsletter. Now there are two potentially conflicting subscriptions—directly supporting the artist, or supporting the media behemoth and hoping it trickle-downs credit where the credit is due. Who should get my money?
Dear Pay Up,
Are you a friend of mine? I ask because I have a Substack and also write for media outlets, including this one. I also have many conflicting thoughts about this, because I’m the former editor in chief of an under-resourced newspaper owned by an erstwhile senior White House adviser, and I teach a journalism graduate school class about media innovation, where we talk about these conflicts routinely.
So I think the answer depends on what you really want to support. Substack is great for niche experts (such as Bill Bishop, whose China Substack is one of its most successful) and people who write commentary. But Substack is not, for the most part, offering an alternative to the journalism that news organizations produce. Some of the reasons for this are technical: Investigative journalism is expensive, and the journalists need legal indemnification. But Substack is great for opinion writing.
In my experience, there is no trickle-down effect in news organizations in terms of salary. When your columnist was in her 20s, the only way to get a decent raise was to take a job at another organization, and that’s still largely the case. Your subscription is probably not going to get your favorite writer a raise, though it might allow the organization to hire someone else whose writing you like. Substack revenues go directly to the writer. But the media behemoths do things that, at least right now, Substack can’t possibly do—and they’re crucial to the continued health of our democracy. We need people who do reporting to tell us what’s really going on and to hold powerful people accountable. So there’s value in supporting the behemoths even aside from your favorite writer.
More Pay Dirt
I have a high-earning job but struggle with depression. I need to live with other people just for the social pressure of needing to shower. I own a three-bedroom, two-bath condo in the heart of downtown. One bedroom is my office. “Yuli,” who lives in the guest bedroom, came to me because a friend of a friend knew they were homeless, and I needed a roommate. We lived together for three years in harmony. I asked Yuli a third of what a roomshare goes for in our city because they are clean, a good cook, and understand when to press me to get me out of my head or to leave me alone.
Recently, my younger sister got tossed in the streets after her boyfriend bailed on rent. Her options are move home, where she hates our stepfather, move in the suburban hell with our sister and her babies, or stay with me. I offered to put her up free for six months on an air mattress in my room. She declined because she “deserves” her own space and wants my office. I start work at 5 a.m., and my sister is notoriously hard to wake up. The living room wouldn’t work because my sister is a slob and it is the only communal space in the condo. My sister wants me to kick out Yuli for her. She says I “owe” her because I am her family, she is technically homeless, and Yuli is on a month-to-month lease with me. She says if she goes home, our stepfather will “abuse” her—meaning they will fight like cats and dogs. Our lives growing up were not easy and left scars, but am I wrong for not throwing Yuli under the bus for my sister? My sister makes me want to break out in hives, but she is my baby sister.