Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am 26 years old, and I don’t make much. What I do make goes toward bills and rent (I live in a high-rent area). Sometimes I’m lucky if I can even afford food. I recently began dating a woman who isn’t working at the moment but is looking. We have talked about moving in together, but she has a kid, and I’m living paycheck to paycheck. She has interviews lined up for jobs that pay more than mine. I feel ashamed that I can barely afford my bills. How should I bring the fact up that she will be the breadwinner and I’m embarrassed about that? On top of that, she has asked me many times why we never go out for dates, instead of her coming over to my place. I feel as if she won’t understand. How should I talk to her about my current financial situation? Switching jobs isn’t an option, as it is hard to do so while working nights.
Dear Mr. Embarrassed,
It’s not unusual for a 26-year-old in an area that has a high cost of living to be in your situation, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But if you’re not ready to discuss this kind of thing with your significant other, you are not ready to move in together. (You also mention that you “recently” began dating her. What’s the rush?) I think you need to be honest with her about your financial situation if you think of this as a serious relationship that has future potential. Whether she’s the breadwinner or not seems like a premature conversation, given that she has no job right now, but if you want to broach it, you should just begin with a discussion of where you see yourselves going to professionally, and what that means in terms of income. Then you can talk about what you think is an equitable way to split expenses if one of you is making significantly more money.
But you have many other things that you probably need to talk about first before you decide who’s bringing home the bacon. If she has a kid you’re going to live with, you’re going to play a role in that child’s life, too. All of these things need to be discussed before you two even think about looking at rental listings.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have been married 10 years, when my stepdaughter was 18. She is currently working on her Ph.D., and my husband supports her financially. We both are contributing equally to our retirement and household expenses. What has made our marriage work is we keep clean boundary lines about our private business. We make about the same amount, but my husband inherited a lot from his parents and late uncles.
My niece has gotten accepted into both a public and a private university. She wants to go to the private one but can’t afford it, even with the college funds everyone has set aside for her. My sister and brother-in-law came to us ask for money—either paying directly or co-signing loans. My husband and I discussed it. The loan idea was not workable. My husband expressed worry about setting a precedent for the other children on my side (I have six nieces and nephews). He did agree to cover some living expenses for my niece for the next four years and her brothers when their turns came, but that when the younger cousins came of age (they are 6 and 3), either my sister and brother-in-law or their adult children would help out. We thought this was fair. My sister did not. She grew angry at us and called is miserly. My niece cried we were destroying her dream. My sister said we had enough money to “waste” on my stepdaughter and her “ridiculous” degree that will never amount to anything. I was completely in shock. My husband got me up and we left.
A week later, my sister texted us that they would take our offer but not include the condition that her family would be responsible for helping out the other children in the future. My husband has told me to tell my sister that the offer is rescinded. We argued. He finally told me to do what I want, but he isn’t rewarding their greed. I will not be able to cover more than a few bills for my niece. What do I do?
Dear Broken-Hearted Aunt,
Neither of you owe it to your sister and brother-in-law to help your niece financially. And it’s unfortunate that they’ve cultivated such a sense of entitlement that your niece also believes you’re obligated to finance her “dream,” but that’s not your problem. I don’t blame your husband for taking the idea off the table entirely, especially given their insulting characterization of his daughter’s own educational ambitions.
But you say that you and your husband have clean boundaries around your money, so if you decide to help your niece in spite of this tantrum, you can do so—even if it’s only “a few bills.” If your sister doesn’t already know that you and your husband handle your money separately, you should inform her if you decide to write any checks, and make it clear that he doesn’t owe them anything, and neither do you. In the same way that you and your husband have hard boundaries, you need to set some with your sister. Your money is your money, not a shared resource for the entire extended family. If you choose to contribute, you will be contributing what you can, which may not be what they want. It’s still incredibly generous, and if they choose not to see that, they’re the ones who have character flaws, not you.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My roommate owns the house we live in. He referred me to a credit card so we both would receive a signup bonus if I spent at least $500 within the first three months. We verbally agreed we would use my card when we ordered food, and he would pay me back after. (He even added my card to his food delivery apps.) I moved in with him after that time, and he became verbally abusive, so I was afraid to bring up the debt he owed me because I didn’t want to make things worse. When I realized there’s no excuse for him not to pay me back (he makes a lot more money than me and owns two homes), I finally sent him the spreadsheet with a detailed breakdown that I had told him from the beginning I would create to track costs. He said he needed to send it to his accountant to approve, and it was up to them whether he would pay. It’s now been six months, and any time I try to bring it up, he deflects, makes excuses, and gets angry. He’s become worse (gaslighting, manipulating, passive aggressive, retaliatory behavior) when I’ve done nothing but nice, helpful things for him. I’m not sure how I should approach this, because I fear that if I stand up for myself, he’ll do worse, and the emotional distress is already exhausting. With a few more months on my lease, I was thinking if I should just deduct the debt from the rent I pay him. Please let me know what you would recommend.
Dear Overdue Debt,
I think it would be perfectly reasonable for you to deduct the debt from the rent you pay him, but understand that if you do that, you may be inviting more engagement with him than you want. And if he’s withholding the reimbursement to manipulate you, he will continue to do so, and will probably use the rent as an excuse to prolong his terrible behavior.
Your roommate’s line about the accountant needing to approve these minor personal expenses sounds fishy to me, but if it’s true, the accountant would likely be more of a neutral party who doesn’t have your roommate’s emotional involvement in the issue. So if he insists that all of this must go through his accountant, offer to contact that person directly and also send the rent payment directly to that office, with a breakdown of the expenses. If he refuses to budge, inform him both in person and in writing that you’ll be deducting the expenses owed from the last month’s rent. You could also look into suing him in small claims court once you’ve moved out, though that may be tricky with only a verbal agreement.
But if you’re able to live without the repayment money, you may want to consider writing it off and spending your energy on looking for a new place to live as soon as possible. It may be a small price to pay to ensure your safety and wellbeing and have a manipulative, hostile person out of your life for good.
Dear Pay Dirt,
By most of the world’s standards, I have a terrible relationship with money. It’s in my hands, then it’s out of my life. I pay my bills, I pay my rent, I travel, I treat friends to meals and gifts, and I donate to political causes and charities. But I am over 40, and I have credit card debt (though all current with a good credit rating), and absolutely no savings to speak of. But I am happy! I have no kids to worry about supporting. Am I really in that terrible of a position?
—Money Isn’t Even Real Anyway
You’re not in a terrible position, with one small caveat: You should have something of an emergency fund, or you may end up dependent on others if something unexpected happens. This doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. Most Americans would have trouble covering a surprise $1,000 expense if they had to, and it sounds like you’re not in that boat. A month’s worth of expenses would be a minimum, and three months’ would be ideal.
That said, you seem to be asking whether it’s OK that you spend your money how you do. If it’s not, your columnist is in trouble, too. I’ve never had much of an inclination to accumulate things, so I don’t dream of second and third homes or nice cars or yachts or whatever it is we’re culturally told we should build wealth in order to acquire. I’m the only New Yorker I know whose eyes glaze over when people talk about real estate.
You know what makes you happy—experiences, being able to be generous to friends, supporting causes you care about—so you shouldn’t feel ashamed about spending on those things instead of socking it all away or buying things for their own sake. Money is an instrument; it frees people in poverty from suffering, helps people spend time doing more things they want to, with people they want to, and yes, sometimes buys them comfort in the form of fancy houses and possessions. For you, it buys a higher quality of life in specific areas that you appreciate. A lot of people don’t know that these things make them happy until late in life when they’ve spent money on the wrong things, so consider yourself lucky that you already know what you really care about. But for your own sake, open that emergency savings account!
My 16-year-old daughter got accepted to a very prestigious Ivy League summer program. She can probably get a scholarship to cover the tuition, but not housing. My brother has offered to put her up, but she would have to walk a mile and a half to the subway and then change trains before getting to campus. My brother smokes pot daily, and his judgment gets even less reliable when he’s high. His girlfriend, whom I like, often threatens to throw him out. We live in a town of 700 on the opposite coast. My daughter has had very little exposure to urban living.