Pay Dirt

My Mother-in-Law Blew All Her Money and Now Wants Her Kids to Support Her

Neither of her children wants to keep bailing her out.

Hands holding a will
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Spoon Graphics.

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 in-laws divorced about 10 years ago and split their assets. My mother-in-law spent her money, and despite a good job, has debts and no assets. Health issues may force her into retirement, and she will not be able to afford her rent.

My father-in-law passed away recently, leaving a significant amount of money to his grandchildren, my husband, and his sister. It was important to him that his children and grandchildren be financially stable. My husband plans to use the inheritance to pay off our mortgage so we can use large portions of our salaries to catch up on retirement and college savings accounts.

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My mother-in-law expects her children to help her financially and inquires frequently about the estate. But neither of her children wants to continually bail her out of debt. She cannot live with either family. We’re concerned about her retirement. Is there a way we can help her without being a revolving ATM or jeopardizing our financial security and our children’s future? She has refused to see a financial adviser or counselor.

—Not Cold-Hearted, but Not an ATM

Dear Not an ATM,

Your mother in law sounds real peachy. Have your husband and sister-in-law told her point blank they will not be helping her financially? I’m wondering if that is the reason why she continues to inquire about the estate because she’s still holding out hope. And in some states, children can be legally liable for their parents’ well-being under certain circumstances. (If you just let out the biggest gasp reading that, you are not alone—I did too, when I first learned of it.)

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The best thing your husband and sister-in-law can do to help is continue to hold strong boundaries when it comes to finances. There are plenty of other things she can speak to her children about, and money should no longer be one of them. If she asks about the estate, remind her of this boundary and change the subject or end the conversation. If she expresses a need for further assistance, they can direct her to your state’s social security office (for a disability claim), as well as your local affordable housing department. She may qualify for rent subsidies or can be directed into a senior living community she can afford.

I would also stop suggesting a financial adviser or counselor. When she is ready for help, she will reach out for help. You also do not want to have it in her mind that if she completes these tasks, you will give her money (unless that is an actual stipulation). Remember, we are drawing up boundaries, not giving false hope or ultimatums.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I am a medical student in my 30s. I live with my boyfriend, “John,” who is a registered nurse. Neither of us have student loans or debt other than our credit card. My father still helps me with expenses—not a lot, but I have always had an “allowance.” John pays for all the house expenses, as I don’t really “work.” I do part-time side jobs, but I do pay for most of the groceries and take care of the house. We talk about marriage all the time, and once I work in a hospital, I know I will be making the same or more than him.

The problem is that he spends a lot. By a lot, I mean he is OK with spending $100 or more on a pair of shoes twice a month. Or a $300 watch. While I do know that this is normal spending, I am stingy.

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When we marry, I would like to keep our money semi-separate. He always complains about spending too much and wanting to save more, and he has a big savings. I do not. He makes me try to find ways to save more money, get cheaper house items, etc, while he doesn’t cut costs on his personal expenses. And in the long run I do not want to argue about his spending versus me being a cheapo. How do I mention this without him throwing in my face that he pays for everything right now? Is having a joint bank account the meaning of love?

—Save Every Buck

Dear Save Every Buck,

I wonder if John is low-key tired of paying for all of your living expenses while you just buy groceries and do chores. Perhaps that’s why he keeps harping on your spending. Am I saying it’s fair or the right way for him to address it? No—it’s actually pretty crappy. But the current setup doesn’t seem to be working for either of you right now.

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I would like you to sit down, pull up all your credit card and bank statements from the past few months, add up all of your money, and see where it is going. (An app like Mint can help with the sorting.) What’s eating up the allowance and side-gig incomes? Does John see you being wasteful with your money when you could be helping more? Or are you busy paying for tuition and books, and he fails to recognize that?

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If you feel you are in the right and are being mindful with your spending, sit with John and tell him that you love him but not the approach he is taking with you and your finances. In an effort to work together, you would like to get started with having a money date night, so you can get on the same page financially and work together as a team. You can also discuss the idea of moving forward with getting a joint account while keeping your own separate ones. Even if you realize there are places where you could scale back your spending, it’s still a good idea to have this conversation with him. You both have different strengths you can bring to the table, and you’ll be better off having these hard discussions now and figuring out how you want to more forward financially as a couple.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My parents have worked hard their entire lives to build robust savings and a solid retirement for themselves. They’re now both retired, and their financial adviser has recommended that they offload some of those savings to me and my sister so they don’t have to pay so much tax on them. When they spoke about it privately, my father reportedly said that I would just give it all away to charity, and my sister would just spend it needlessly, so he felt it was a bad decision. He didn’t want to discuss it any further.

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I have no interest in doing anything with my parents’ money that they would not approve of, but I have never been given the opportunity to state this, as my mother was the one who told me about his comment.

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My sister and I are both employed adults living on our own, and I feel if he’s going to make such an inference about our financial behavior, we deserve to be included in the conversation. Is it reasonable of me to start a discussion around this issue myself? Or do I have to wait until my parents are ready to bring it up?

—Family Finances

Dear Family Finances,

Well, this is awkward. Your mom spilled some financial tea she probably shouldn’t have, and now you’re mad at your dad.

I would suggest you open a conversation with your mom first to get a better understanding of what’s going on here. Is there a reason she told you this? Does she think it’s worth discussing this issue as a family, or with your dad personally? Was she venting? Have you and your sibling actually done what he predicted you would do? No, it’s not right to assume how you would feel, especially if given direction, but he might not see it that way.

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Your parents are getting older, so I think a discussion about their estate isn’t unreasonable, and that might be a more productive approach to the topic on hand. When your family is gathered for a meal or a visit, ask if they have thought about their estate planning and if there is anything they’d like to share or know. If your parents seem apprehensive, explain that you’ve seen someone else recently go through this and you want to be prepared if it were to happen to you. If there’s still no interest, show your father you’re the financial adult that you are by saying you understand it’s a sensitive topic and you’re here if he does ever want to talk. Then pass the gravy or the wine.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My son is dyslexic and needs a private school to close the large achievement gap caused by his public school. The private school is expensive and beyond our means. We received a small financial aid award but it’s not enough. We are working on getting loans, but that will be difficult to sustain if he needs more than a year at the school. What do we do to help our son without going into financial ruin?

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—Special Needs

Dear Special Needs,

I think you may have a few options worth exploring. The American Federation for Children has an interactive guide that shows you what your state will help cover on top of the financial award you have received from the school. Some states have a voucher program that will allow your son to take the state assistance a public school would have received on his behalf to a private school instead. Other states offer similar programs, as well as tax credits. You’ll also want to Google “special needs scholarship program” plus your state to see if there are any additional funding options available. Finally, you can inquire about “equitable services” with your son’s public school district. Each school district has money set aside to help with special needs services, and in certain cases, this money can be transferred to your son’s private school. I hope he enjoys his new school.

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—Athena

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