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,
I am the breadwinner between my husband and I. I pay over half of the ridiculously expensive rent (hello, California), all the utilities, the family car payment, child care, and more—and not even counting my massive student loans, which have been on forbearance the past year. I only have 10 percent of my check for other essentials like gas and groceries, which is not enough to really live off of. My husband pays the rest of the rent, child support for his first son, and a few other bills. We have this arrangement because he says that I (who went to college, got a degree, and have a professional license) make significantly more than him, therefore I can afford to pay for more of the bills. He said that he just cannot afford to help me too much.
Out of nowhere, he went and bought a third car—his dream muscle car. He said it wasn’t my concern and that it’s his money, so he’s the one paying for it and that I don’t need to worry about it.
I was furious that he could buy his dream car, but I can’t even save to get myself out of debt. How do I get him to see how unfair this whole situation is? I’ve already shown him spreadsheets with my budget and where exactly my entire check goes to every two weeks. He agreed to help take over one or two of my bills but mentioned multiple times that I need to “cut costs and get rid of non-essential things.”
—Nursing the Debt
Dear Nursing the Debt,
I would like you to sit your husband down with your spreadsheet of bills and ask him which costs he would like you to cut for you to be able to afford your dream car as well.
No, but seriously, this inequity needs to stop. Your husband sounds very entitled, and he’s using your higher income to his advantage. He isn’t stressed out because his money isn’t being affected—he’s not seeing you as a financial partner, so why would he care? And news flash, just because he had a kid with someone else doesn’t mean he gets to skip out of child care with you.
I would suggest that you and your husband combine your incomes in a joint bank account, then create a new budget together. He can help decide which “costs” and “non-essential things” should be cut from the budget to help pay for child care and other essentials you’re shouldering. You have debt too, and student loans are something you brought into this marriage—just like his child support. With your money combined, you’re both invested in how it gets spend and can both decide as a team what to spend moving forward. If he refuses, then you may need to look into other ways to divide bills—perhaps even framing it to him that your loans are your own fancy car payment? Stand your ground. You are in the right, and you deserve more support.
Dear Pay Dirt,
A few years ago, I was in a mental health crisis, unemployed, and facing homelessness. During that time, I only spent money on rent and medical bills, and money was a constant stressor. I only checked my account balance to make sure I could make rent, because it would send me into panic attacks. My partner at the time let me move in with her, and I was eventually able to stabilize and find work. We’re now married.
I’ve continued to struggle to manage money, however; it still causes me intense stress to even look at how much money we have in the bank, let alone do any planning with it. I struggle with insurance as well, which makes it difficult to seek medical care because I don’t understand how much it costs or if we can afford it. Right now, our solution is for my wife to manage our finances and reassure me that we can spend money on whatever needs buying, but I worry about this imbalance in our relationship.
I have been trying and failing to see a therapist about this, but do you have any suggestions in the meantime? Why is this still happening when we’re financially stable?
—Scared of Money
Dear Scared of Money,
For lots of people, money and budgeting can trigger anxiety or panic attacks, even if they’re financially stable. Money was a stressor for a long time, causing your body to be in a hyper-aroused state associated with looking at your bank balance. Your brain does not want to go back to that place, and it knows that looking at your checking account can trigger that feeling, so you freeze. It’s normal, and kudos to you for acknowledging it and wanting to work on it.
Your wife is willing to handle this task, and she would not do this if she didn’t love you or if it was a major source of stress for her as well. I would also bet that you are good at something that she either isn’t or doesn’t like to do. Talk to her and see if there is something you can take on that will lessen her emotional and mental labor and relieve you of your guilt.
There are also different ways you can work on your trauma around money. First, continue looking for a therapist, particularly one who specializes in financial therapy, or one who has training in trauma and anxiety counseling. Your goal there is to talk through your money anxiety and find ways to cope with it and address it. You and your partner can also read a beginner budgeting book together, or you can search for a financial literacy class to take solo or as a team. You could ask your wife to walk you through her budgeting or bill-paying process, so you see it in action repeatedly. (This could work for finding health care, too, although knowing how much you’ll pay is notoriously difficult.) Your goal here is to find ways to lessen your guilt while becoming more confident—which I hope will carry over to your money management.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have been married to my husband for 22 years, and in that time he has had 14 jobs. I’ve worked full time consistently since we’ve been married, except for two years that I spent raising our son. Because of his constant job-hopping, and times between jobs that lasted more than a few months, we have no retirement plan and no savings. We live paycheck to paycheck. I’m 59 and looking for a second job. It probably won’t be too much extra a month because I already work full time. What are my options for starting a retirement fund when I’m hoping to retire by 70?
—Behind the Eight Ball
Dear Behind the Eight Ball,
Chronic job-hopping can definitely affect retirement, and so does lack of savings. You mention his lack of a consistent career as the reason behind not having any retirement savings, but you also say you worked full time for 20 of the 22 years you’ve been married. Though I realize there could be countless factors at play here, it sounds like this wasn’t a priority for either one of you. Going forward, you two will need to work together as a team so that you can have a substantial nest egg in 11 years.
First, you need to figure out why you’re living paycheck to paycheck. Living this way is costing you more money and more stress, and you won’t be able to save if you have nothing left at the end of the month. You need to closely examine your spending to see where your money is going. Eating out frequently, memberships that aren’t being used, and multiple impulse purchases are some of the ways people misspend.
Then, you need to look into zero-based budgeting to help account for every dollar that you have. I love Mint because you can link it up to your checking accounts, and it will sort your transactions into categories for easy budgeting. By tracking your spending, you will be able to see what you can cut back on in your budget or completely cut out. It will also help you figure out how much you will need to live comfortably in retirement. And if you aren’t already, get in the habit of looking for discounts, specials, and coupons with every single purchase, and stash that extra cash into your savings.
I also want you to take advantage of your current employers’ benefits. Make sure you and your husband are utilizing your health insurance plans and taking care of any medical treatment that’s needed, especially preventative care. Many health issues that arise as we age are ones that could have been addressed earlier, when treatments would be less costly and more effective. Next, look into your employers’ retirement account options and see if they offer matches. If they do, make sure you’re signed up. Also, when you are over 50 and contributing to a retirement account—either a 401(k) or an IRA—the government will allow you to play catch-up and invest more than someone who is younger. If you each were able to contribute the maximum until you were 70, you could have a nest egg of more than $500,000, not including your return rate. I won’t lie—this will be a challenge. But each dollar saved is better than your current situation. Good luck.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I recently moved from a very expensive city in which I assumed I could never buy real estate to a more affordable midsize one. I sometimes browse Zillow listings here, and homes and condos definitely feel more within my reach. But the thing is: I love my current apartment. I’d gladly live here indefinitely, but I just have this nagging feeling that the responsible thing to do is to buy property. I know I’d be gaining equity rather than throwing rent away each month (and I wouldn’t have to worry about my rent going up year of year). I’m in my early 30s, single, no kids. I save for retirement and also have enough miscellaneous savings that I could probably pull together a decent down payment. Is buying a house always the most responsible thing from a personal finance perspective? I can’t tell if I’ve been brainwashed by years of watching HGTV into thinking this is something I need to do.
Dear House Hunted,
Oh, I feel you—I love my apartment because it’s cheap and in a great part of town, and you will have to pry it out of my cold, dead fingers. Despite this, sometimes I too feel that pull to buy. But contrary to what HGTV preaches, buying a house is not always the most responsible practice, personal finance-wise.
First, you have to save for a down payment. In order to avoid paying private mortgage insurance, you’ll need to come up with at least 20 percent of the selling price up front. Then you’ll also have to pay property taxes, which can rival mortgage payments in some parts of the country, along with homeowner’s insurance and HOA fees, if your property has one. And there is the issue of maintenance, which can be minimal or astronomical in terms of both time and money, depending on the age of the property, how well it was kept up, or just what happens to go wrong. (I personally know someone who bought her house for close to $200,000, spent almost half of that in needed repairs, then still sold it a few years later at a loss.) And if you need a knee-slapper to seal the deal, the market has historically outperformed real estate as far as returns go, making investing rather than buying the better personal finance choice. Oh, and also: Home prices are out of control right now.
Now that I say all of that, you should do what you want. If you’re scrolling through Zillow and fall in love with a place in your price range, go for it. But if you’re happy in your apartment and it works for your budget, you’re not “throwing away money,” and you should not feel obligated to buy. Toss the extra money in some index funds, order carryout and a cocktail, and enjoy your rented space, where someone else has to deal with the broken HVAC or fix the leaky faucet.
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I send my daughter to a Montessori school for pre-K. We love it, it’s close to work, and the teachers and staff are amazing. It’s also incredibly expensive. Given that I’m already shelling out $11,000 for my daughter’s education, I was surprised when I received the following letter: “As a part of our Teacher Appreciation Week activities next week, the PTO Appreciation Committee is pleased to coordinate the purchase of a gift card to a local merchant of each teacher’s choice. By many families contributing to the same gift, they are able to select something special. Participation is optional.” And then there are multiple pages listing every faculty and staff member (including groundskeepers) with a space to insert my contribution next to every name. What the heck is this? Is this normal? Do faculty and staff see how much we give or don’t give? Why is this institution not capable of showing my “appreciation” with the money I already give them?