Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My late husband was quite wealthy, but he passed away unexpectedly shortly after retiring. He left a small-ish (but enough to pay for Ivy League college and grad school) portion of his money in a trust to his then-teenage son. He left the rest of his money, shares in his company, and other assets to me. I have always felt guilty about getting so much when my stepson should have gotten more, so I have always helped him out—putting more money in accounts for him and his family, buying him his first apartment and house, paying for his wedding. This meant my stepson has lived a luxurious lifestyle while working at a job he enjoys and earning a low salary.
My stepson had a monthslong affair with a woman he copiously lied to and left her after she got pregnant. She tried to reach out to him, but he ignored her. His wife called her up and cursed her out, apparently calling her several slurs. She finally reached out to me, and after attempting to reason with my stepson (only to be met with rudeness and aggression), I put her in contact with my stepson’s uncle and cousin, who both did tests showing her son had great-uncle/second cousin relationships with them. But because my money has let my stepson earn such a low salary without consequences, she fears he will not be able to pay enough child support, and she is worried she will be let go from her job.
I am furious with my stepson and his wife. I want to pull my financial support from them permanently and give it to his son and former affair partner. My stepson and his wife both have multiple degrees and haven’t worked much because of my support—they could get good jobs if they wanted to. My other step-grandson’s mother has been working at a hotel and lives in a cramped apartment. I want her and her son to have access to the private schools, clothes, cars, house, and money I have guiltily given to my stepson and his wife, but I also want to provide for their son separately, so they can’t access it. What do I do? How should I begin this process and make sure nobody uses the money unwisely? I haven’t consulted anyone yet, and I am not even sure if I should go ahead with it or not.
—Furious Family Bank
Your compassion toward your son’s affair partner is admirable, and reasonable given your son’s behavior. If you haven’t already, you should talk to your son about the consequences of what he’s doing. There is a child involved, whether he likes it or not, and that child is going to grow up knowing who his biological father is, and his impression will either be that his father is an irresponsible, selfish person, or that he took responsibility for his actions and did the right thing when the occasion arose. It’s not just about his relationship with his former affair partner; it’s also about his relationship with his own child. You can also emphasize that you were under no obligation to help him out the way you have, but you did it because you felt it was the right thing to do, and fair. He needs to put aside his obvious anger toward his affair partner and consider that this child is not at fault and punishing him or her by withholding support is cruel and wrong.
If he can’t be persuaded to do the right thing on his own, I think you could make an argument for using some of the money you’d normally give him to make sure your grandchild via the affair is taken care of. I don’t think you should completely withdraw support from your stepson because that would likely go against the wishes of your late husband, but I doubt your late husband would want to see a grandchild of his, whether via marriage or not, suffer either.
If you decide you are going to support your other grandchild, I think you need to put more rigorous boundaries around what’s expected of you with regard to financial support and make sure your own will reflects your decisions about how much support you’ll provide and to whom.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My wife and I have different opinions on budgeting and saving for retirement. I think it’s important to consider benefits when starting a new job. My wife hops from temporary nursing job to temporary nursing job, always hunting a higher hourly wage—no PTO or health insurance. This leaves me to maintain our health insurance through my job. My in-laws are very supportive and vocal that she is on the right path. How do I get them to listen to me?
—Exasperated Accountant Husband
I think you have to do the literal math here because there’s a good chance that what your wife is making by increasing her hourly wage, over time, outweighs the cost of any benefits she would accrue in a full-time job where she’s unlikely to get significant or regular salary increases. I have several relatives who are traveling nurses and work exactly the same kind of temporary jobs, and my understanding from them is that this is really the only way to increase wages over time. Once your wife gets to a wage level that feels sustainable, it might make sense for her to consider a full-time position with benefits. But consider that she may be correct that this is the right path for now. Not every industry has the same norms when it comes to wages and benefits, and nursing jobs may not work the way accounting jobs do in this respect.
But there’s an easy to way to make an argument: Calculate the cost of what you’re paying in health insurance premiums for her as a dependent, and weigh it against the wage increases she’s experienced by taking temporary work.
That said, do not expect that she’s going to look at that analysis if it works in your favor and say yes to it, because she may also have other motivations for wanting to do the temporary work. It may be more engaging to her, it may open up new career paths, or she may simply like a regular change of scenery. (Not everyone wants to work for the same company indefinitely.) Different people want different things out of their careers, and stability and good benefits may not be your wife’s biggest priorities, even if they’re deeply important to you. If you resent that your salary is subsidizing her health insurance, you could ask her to pay her pro-rata portion.
If none of this moves the needle, I think you have to examine why this actually bothers you. My guess is that it’s not actually about the benefits.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My uncle nearly lost all of his retirement fund on a bad investment and lives in extremely limited income while doing odd jobs. His wife has never worked. They have one child who lives with them and works in a low-wage administrative job. My cousin likes to buy designer clothes and luxuries that she couldn’t afford. She never contributes to the bills, not even groceries. My aunt encourages and defends her, while my uncle is silent. His siblings periodically send them money to help pay the bills, but as they get older and retire themselves, the amount sent keeps getting smaller. My father has asked if I’d be willing to send some money for uncle, as I am financially comfortable. I don’t want to. I live within my means and don’t want to subsidize my cousin’s unsustainable lifestyle. But on the other hand, it’s clear that my uncle is feeling the pressure of his dire financial situation. Should I help my uncle anyway?
—The Responsible Cousin
It’s unclear from your letter how old your luxury aficionado cousin is, and I think that has a little bearing on my answer. Younger people often spend on things they can’t afford because they’re markers of status and they think it’s important to their social lives and so on. As they get older and accumulate more adult responsibilities, they think about saving and providing for others. So if we’re talking about a cousin somewhere in her early 20s, I’d cut her some slack. If she’s older than that, I think she does have some responsibility to at least pay her share of the bills.
As for what you owe: Technically speaking, you don’t owe anyone anything. But unless your uncle is buying designer clothes for your cousin (and it doesn’t sound that’s what’s happening), let’s be clear: You’d be subsidizing your uncle and his wife, not your cousin’s lifestyle. If your cousin eats their groceries, well, she’d probably do that even if she lived nearby and was just visiting.
So this is really about whether you want to help your uncle and his wife. Your cousin’s low-wage administrative job is unlikely to support them in any case. You’re certainly not obligated to help, but you should leave your cousin out of this calculation.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am a 15-year-old high school sophomore, and while I’m lucky enough to not have to work, this means I currently depend on my parents for spending money. I used to babysit regularly pre-pandemic, but even though a lot of people in my area are vaccinated, I now get about one job a month, and I only earn about $20 per job. But since I have to borrow money from my parents a lot, I have to pay them back, so I don’t get to keep most, if not all, of the money. I end up broke and then have to borrow from my parents again, continuing this cycle.
Although I am grateful that my parents can afford to lend me $20 to $30 at a time, this means that they have a say in what I buy with it. My mom made me return a swimsuit she thought was inappropriate and told me I could spend my own money how I wanted, but I couldn’t buy certain things with her money. I could get an actual job, but I’m doing a two-month-long biology program for teens at a nearby university, and it takes up most of my day, and then the out-of-class work takes up the rest of it. I just want some financial privacy and agency, but it seems impossible to get, unless I want to give up sleep. Can you give me some advice on how to get out of this problem?
I got my first job at 14, which I’m pretty sure was a child labor law violation, but I loved it for precisely the reasons you mention: I had my own money, and I got to decide to how to spend it. I kept working part time here and there all through high school, while also playing varsity sports, studying, and participating in school clubs, and going to church. I don’t say that to brag, but to just to note that I had a jam-packed schedule all of the time and did not sleep much myself. It wasn’t ideal, but it was worth it to have the agency. I didn’t have to ask my parents for money, nor could they tell me what to do with the money I did have.
The thing about part-time jobs is that you can often find things as a teenager that are very flexible, hours-wise. I worked about 20 hours a week most of the time, but you don’t have to do that—you can work 10. Or five. You can find someone who only needs help on the weekends. You can promote your babysitting services on local Facebook pages and probably get more work that way if you want. You can tutor younger students and make your own schedule. Whatever you end up doing will be better than getting $20 or $30 sporadically. If you work five hours a week, that’ll be more gratifying that having to ask your parents for money and having them police what you do with it. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation.
My good friend has found her mate after several failed relationships and is desperate to be married and start her family. She has asked me to be in the wedding. I would normally be pleased to do so, except for one issue. She has debt of approximately $250,000 in credit cards and student loans, and she has not told her fiancé about this. I feel strongly that she is morally and ethically required to tell him before they are married, but she refuses. I can’t help but feel like an accomplice to her dishonesty by standing up in the wedding. What is the right thing to do?