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 grew up poor, while I grew up more middleclass. He has always controlled all our finances, and spends hours monthly on budgeting and checking bills, credit cards, etc. I’ve never known anybody who obsesses like this. All income, including gifts, goes to the joint account, and I have to keep receipts for everything I buy, down to a coffee, so he can record and check it. We have a fairly big (but manageable) mortgage, and our child has added many more costs to our lives, but otherwise we’re OK.
I was very young when we got together, and I went along because I didn’t know anything else. Recently, I’ve started to hate it. I hate that he checks anything I buy. I hate that he says it has to be this way because there’s nothing extra. I understand the way his insecure upbringing shaped him, but anytime I ask about doing things differently, I end up feeling scolded, unreasonable, and frivolous. I can’t see a solution. Maybe you can?
—In-House Class War
Dear In-House Class War,
It sounds like you are very patient with your husband and very understanding of his background and how it might reflect through his ideas on money management. However, I’m worried that he may be trying to control you through financial abuse, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest a few possible approaches.
First, you should have a separate checking account in your name only. You’d contribute your agreed-upon portion into the joint account, and whatever’s in this account would be yours to spend, without scrutiny. This would also help you in case funds are frozen in the joint account. Second, if he hasn’t, he needs to share all the joint account information with you. You need to know where your money is going just as much as he does. Things happen, and your spouse could be left unable to handle your family’s affairs. The last thing you need to worry about is how to log in to pay a bill on time.
Ask if he would consider learning more about finances with you as a couple. There are some great resources out there for learning about money as a couple—the Couple Money podcast is focused on those starting to manage money together for the first time, and David Bach’s Smart Couples Finish Rich offers tools and strategies for managing money as a team.
If you’re still not seeing eye to eye, your requests for changes are met with more scolding or anger, and you want to keep pushing forward, you might try couples counseling. It may take an outside voice (although it shouldn’t) to help him realize he has some unhealthy behaviors about money and treating you like an equal. If you fear there is financial abuse, the National Network to End Domestic Violence has a list of signs to look for and next steps with resources. If you’re unable to access the link on a safe computer, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 and/or talk to a trusted friend or relative about helping you and your child plan a safe exit. You deserve not to feel scolded or unreasonable for spending your own money.
Dear Pay Dirt,
A relative of my spouse’s died very unexpectedly several months ago. They lived far apart, but I would say they had a pretty close relationship. The estate as a whole is a complicated situation, which my mother-in-law and her sibling are primarily handling. Recently, we learned that my spouse appears to be the sole beneficiary of a life insurance policy that’s going to pay out a life-changing amount of money. Like, pay for grad school levels of life-changing. But the whole family is puzzled as to why my spouse is the only beneficiary and the cousins were left out.
It seems like it must have been a deliberate choice, but there wasn’t any bad blood between this relative and the other family members, and they left no explanation for the situation.
There are definitely some hurt feelings, and at least one person has made comments about how they “certainly hope” that my spouse will “do the right thing,” heavily implying that they should share the money. Some cousins are more than financially secure, while others have much less.
Should we volunteer to share the money, or follow the (presumed) wishes of the deceased and keep it all? However much we decide to keep, how can we most wisely invest this windfall? (We likely wouldn’t need to pay for anything big, like tuition, until fall of next year.) I feel that it’s right to share some of the money with a few family members who really need it the most—but is that going against the deceased’s wishes? Or am I telling myself that because I kinda wish we could keep it all?
—This Feels Awkward
It sounds like your spouse lost a relative whom they shared a unique and close bond with, especially if they were left with their own inheritance that was separate from the rest of the family. The other relatives may be puzzled and hurt by this, but that is not your spouse’s fault, nor is it their concern. It was deliberate for a reason only known to the relative, and now it’s a mystery no one can solve!
Whether you want to share it with family or keep it all is entirely up to you—there’s no right or wrong decision here. You say you feel it’s right to share, but you need to make sure that’s what your spouse wants, too, especially since they are the recipient of this financial gift. Talk with your spouse and make sure you are on the same page about what to do with the money. If you do decide to share, you can gift an amount to all cousins so that it is “fair,” or you can just give a financial gift to a select few. Make sure time has passed and feelings have died down, and try to keep the conversation civil and focused—though, in this situation, someone is bound to be hurt, regardless of outcome.
Once you receive your inheritance check, it needs to go into an investment account that will help you grow your money over a short period of time. A money market account has interest rates that are better than a high-yield savings account, and this investment vehicle still allows you to access cash so you can make payments on your grad school tuition without a lot of hassle. If you decide to keep it with an eye on the longer term, I suggest making an appointment with a fee-only financial adviser.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I finished graduate school last year with about $50,000 in student loan debt, including the loans from my undergraduate degree. My loans were put on hold while I was in grad school, and then again during the pandemic, so I haven’t made any payments since 2018. I’ve been living at home, working full time, and saving money since graduating college six years ago, so I’ve been able to save over $60,000—enough to pay off my loans in one lump sum!
Here’s the problem: My family thinks this is a bad idea and that I should pay it off in $300 payments every month instead of emptying my savings all at once. I understand their concerns. I plan on moving out soon, so it would be nice to have this money just in case. I make about $40,000 a year and live a in a pretty expensive city. But I also feel like the money isn’t really mine—it belongs to the Department of Education. I’m proud of myself for saving this money, and I think it would be a huge relief to be completely debt-free after making one big payment. Is that irresponsible? Is it better to pay it off monthly over the course of several years? I’ve been waiting to see whether the new administration would forgive a big chunk of my debt, but this seems unlikely now. What should I do?
—Torn Over My Loans
Dear Torn Over My Loans,
Kuddos to being able to save $60,000! That is such a huge accomplishment, so pat yourself on the back.
I think you should pay your student loans off in full. Explain to your family that paying off your student loans early will mean substantially less interest, saving you thousands of dollars over the course of your loan. (A simple loan calculator can help you estimate just how much you’d save in interest, depending on your interest rate and loan term.) It’s common for people to make the minimum payment on their loans and years later be worse off than where they had originally started. Some people might argue that paying off your loans early could affect your credit score, but unless you’re imminently planning to buy a house, this shouldn’t be an issue.
The bonus here, too, is that even if you pay your loans off in full, you still have an emergency fund of $10,000. If you aren’t in a hurry to move out, ask your family if you could stay longer and build that number until you’ve saved six months of expenses, plus whatever cash you’ll need to move. If you don’t know what your expenses will be, check out Zillow for an idea of what rentals go for in your area. This will keep an unexpected expense from derailing your financial journey and going back into debt. And in a high cost-of-living situation on a $40,000 salary, you’ll want to have a healthy cushion, since rent will eat up a lot of your paycheck.
The other option is to split the difference. Find out what your minimum monthly loan payment is, then figure out how much extra you’d want to pay every month—maybe you double it, or $300 extra, or whatever feels right. Then put the rest—including your emergency-fund money—in a high-yield savings account. This will allow you to pay extra toward the principal but still collect interest on the original amount you saved and have a healthy emergency fund. But even though there’s no dollar amount attached, being debt-free can feel like it’s worth a fortune.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m 22, and I’ve been working at my first job for about a year now. I was hoping to make about $50,000 coming out of college (I majored in STEM), and I’m making $75,000. I come from a lower-middle-class background, and I’ve never had this kind of money before. I’ve gone from being the one in the friend group with the least disposable income, since I put myself through college, to the most. But I’m scared of the rug being pulled out from under me and suddenly having nothing. Currently, I have about $25,000 just chilling in my savings account, although about half of that is going to go into my student loans before my deferment period ends.
How do I get over my discomfort with the amount of money I suddenly have? Is it still fair to split things like meals and experiences evenly when I know I have more money? How do I stop feeling guilty every time I spend money on something like takeout when I know I could have used that money better? What do I do with everything I have saved? For context, I also have a diagnosed anxiety disorder that I’m sure isn’t helping.
—Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here
Dear Now We’re Here,
In the words of your Drake reference, “We just want the credit where it’s due.” You, my friend, deserve all the credit. You busted your ass in college, you went into a lucrative field, and now you’re making it rain in your bank account. Baller!
It sounds like you have money set aside for an emergency fund, which is a great first step. Most experts suggest you keep at least three to six months of expenses, so keep squirreling away cash when you can—but you don’t need to live like a monk until you hit that number. You want your money to make money, so make sure you have it in a high-yield savings account to earn interest. I would also talk to a fee-only financial planner to get started with investing for your future as well. You sound like you’re in a great place to start a Roth!
Now, onto your money script. A money script is something we tell ourselves that shapes our beliefs about our finances. It can be a happy, healthy one, or a bad one. Yours sounds like it’s robbing you from the joy you should be experiencing, so we need to work on that. I’d recommend reading Leisa Peterson’s The Mindful Millionaire, which focuses on scarcity mindsets and can help you rewrite your money script into a more positive one.
As for paying more because you make more, you don’t have to. I give you permission to treat people here and there if you would like to, but don’t spend a lot doing that or make it a habit. The same goes for takeout—treat yourself to a meal out here and there, but as long as you don’t do it every night and work on not feeling guilty about it, you’ll be fine. If you’re working with a therapist for your anxiety, it might be good to discuss your money anxiety with them, too. You started from the bottom, but you don’t gotta stay there.
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I am the mother of twin 5-month-old boys. Both of my parents died recently, while my husband’s parents are both still alive. Now that his parents are the only grandparents, he and they have decided that it’s a given they’ll be present at every holiday. This is beginning to slowly shatter me. Not only do I enjoy myself a lot less when they’re around (really, isn’t that the truth for all of us with our in-laws?), but I also feel (perhaps unreasonably) like it’s a betrayal to my own dead parents to be giving my in-laws every holiday when my own parents never got any. My mother was a huge Christmas person, and she never got a Christmas with grandchildren. It’s going to be damn hard for me to be joyous and carefree with my in-laws as I also mourn my own mother at Christmastime. Add this to Thanksgiving, birthdays, Easter, Halloween, etc., and you can see how I’ve come to dread holidays. I’d love to have some of the holidays be just our own little family, without the grandparents, but my husband thinks this is cruel and illogical. Is it wrong to request the grandparents sit a few holidays out?