Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
In late 2017, I collected $133,000 from a wrongful death suit for my oldest son’s death. I placed the check in my account, which was originally a guardianship account for my daughter opened about 10 years earlier. When she stopped using it, I just kept it for my own use, continuing depositing only my paychecks for at least eight years. The associate at the bank was supposed to have changed it to be only my checking account, but keeping this daughter as a signor but no longer primary (for emergencies).
I soon moved across the country to live with her because she wanted to “take care of me.” (I am just 58 this year.) After living with her for a few months, in which she treated me horribly, even though I was paying a lot of her outstanding and current bills, we had a terrible fight, and she kicked me out. A couple of weeks later, she cleaned out my account over the course of a few days, leaving me $6,000.
I filed a criminal case, but the district attorney office chose not to prosecute because her name was on the account. I found out the bank didn’t properly change my account, leaving her as controller of the account. I have tried everything to try to get my money back to no result—unless I put down a huge retainer for a lawyer, which I cannot afford to leave in limbo for years until the case is settled and then only if I win. She has since bought a house and new car, and I have been left homeless, wandering from job to job that includes housing. What do I do?
—Sad and Directionless Mom
Wow. I can’t imagine how you are feeling, and I am so sorry this has happened to you. All of it. This dynamic did not sound healthy at all, and to add insult to injury, she cleaned you out. I first want to make sure you are talking to a licensed professional about this hard time. There are more affordable options now than ever for therapy, and if you are going to deal with this head on and work to move forward, you’ll need grit and outside support.
You shared that the district attorney did not press criminal charges but you fear a civil case would cost you an arm and a leg. Have you tried to find a pro bono attorney in your area that specializes in family law, or a legal aid organization that can walk you through your options? It’s such a large sum of money, and if the bank had followed through with the appropriate channels, this wouldn’t have happened. Even if it’s just a consult, I would try to find a reputable attorney who could offer some guidance on the legal constraints and whether it’s worth your time, money, and effort to proceed.
I’d also like you to do an assessment on your current financial situation. A tool like Personal Capital is a great place to start. You can enter assets you currently have that do not pertain to your daughter, debts you have occurred, and the money you have available from your current paychecks and accounts. Now more than ever, you need to be able to see where you stand financially so you can start trying to figure out a game plan to build a new nest egg for retirement. You can do this.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have always considered myself fairly financially responsible. I put a lot in my savings, keep a minimal amount in my checking, track my budget, etc. I also have a bit of anxiety around spending money—just your general Catholic, Southern guilt associated with Enjoying Things.
And then I got scammed. In the middle of a very busy work day, I got a fraud alert text from my bank and then got called from a number that mimicked the first six digits of my bank’s normal number. It sounded so official and normal—they knew my name!—and told me that a Zelle fraud had occurred and I had to transfer the Zelle money to my email address to get it out of processing. I did that and they told me it would take a couple hours to get back in my account. No money showed up in my account, so I called my bank, and they said it look like it was coming back to me by morning. At no point in this conversation did they think anything was amiss. Then, when I called back in the morning, they said the money had processed to a different bank. That’s when we realized I had been scammed. They immediately walked me through filing a claim and gave me info to file a report. They said it was likely I will get my money back, but not certain, and that it could take up to 90 days to resolve it.
I’m lucky that I have savings and losing this money isn’t destroying my life, though it’s definitely like a bomb went off. How do I keep this from happening in the future? And how do I stop feeling like the dumbest person in the world? I feel so irresponsible, foolish, embarrassed, and ashamed.
—Dumb Scammed Baby
First of all, you are not dumb! Scams happen all the time, to people from all walks of life. Would you call all those successful businesspeople who gave Elizabeth Holmes millions when she was supposedly inventing ground-breaking medical equipment “dumb”? Exactly!
There is no way I can guarantee you that you will not fall victim to another scam, but I can share some tips so you can spot one more easily. First, your bank will never call you to request personal information, such as your social security number, bank account number or security code, birthdate, email, or address. They will, however, send you text messages if that’s how you’ve set up your account to receive alerts. It may be regarding a withdrawal amount or asking if you authorized a purchase. Usually, it’s just you replying yes or no. If it’s ever more than that, go to your bank’s website, look up the contact number, and call that number to see what’s going on.
Scammers tend to be urgent when asking for a request, such as sensitive information, a security code, or a money transfer, but a legitimate bank representative won’t mind if you say you’ll call back at the number found on the bank website. Always ask for their contact information, including name and extension. If it’s something such as an account in collections, ask that they send everything to you in writing. Never agree to a money transfer or buying a gift card. (The r/scams subreddit is a good resource to search, too.) If something feels off, trust your gut.
More Money Advice
Listen to Athena discuss spending on Slate’s How To! podcast:
Dear Pay Dirt,
We have a 16-year-old rising junior. We have been saving for his college but do not have enough to pay for it completely. If he gets a state scholarship, he could get an additional few thousand dollars. So in theory, he could get a part-time job or take out about $6,000 a year in loans—or a combination of both—and get out of school without a ton of debt. We also live in a state where he could go to community college for two years for free. He talks about going to college but is a little all over the place. He has mentioned multiple times that he doesn’t want to go into crippling debt for an education, but he also doesn’t want to go to any school in state. Then the next day he says he is going to go to junior college for free and use all the savings for two years of university.
I think it is time to have some kind of financial conversation with him on what kind of support he can expect from us so we can also start looking at his real options. What conversations should we be having with him? More specifically, as long as there are no unexpected life events, should we tell him how much we will probably have for him for school?
—College Is Expensive!
Ah, teenagers. One minute they want to be lawyers, then the next they could care less about it all together. It sounds like your son is just unsure of where to start this process and how to make a decision. Community colleges are fantastic for people who aren’t yet sure what they want to study, but it seems that he is the one who needs convincing.
Schedule a family night with your son, order in a pizza, and crunch some numbers. You can use a tool like this one that will compare not only tuition at different schools but also other information such as graduation rates, classroom sizes, and student body diversity. These are all important factors to consider, in addition to tuition. With each school, make a list of finance options that may be applicable, such as grants, loans, scholarships, and contributions from family. Run some back-of-the-napkin numbers on what you can contribute and what he’ll need to cover himself, and how any loan repayments will look. This will hopefully help him see the differences and may help guide him toward a decision.
If he’s still on the fence, ask what appeals to him about going to an out-of-state school. State schools offer the same opportunities as private schools for far less money, with less debt and more chances to try things he wouldn’t otherwise be able to. (I spent the summer abroad for a fraction of the price someone else spent because I attended a public school. Thanks, Arizona State!) Since he’s a rising junior, you also have plenty of time to go on campus tours, talk through the positives and negatives of each, and reassure him you won’t show up at his dorm unannounced every Saturday morning if he goes to the school an hour down the road. But starting the money conversation now and giving him all the tools to make an informed decision is an excellent move for both you and him.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mother is terribly worried that I won’t be OK in retirement since I will have neither the magic $1 million saved (completely unrealistic for me) or even 10 times my last salary. But I have crunched the numbers and know that I will be OK. I’m naturally frugal, exceptionally healthy, have multiple options for cheaper geographical relocation, work for a company that wants to keep older workers as long as possible, and have hobbies that are very low cost. Should I have to retire earlier than planned due to health reasons, I am excellent at ferreting out every possible local, state, federal, or charitable program that can help. Why is so much retirement advice so completely unrealistic for the lower or middle class? What can I tell her or give her to reassure Mom I’ll be fine?
—Mom Will Always Worry
I’m not entirely sure why there isn’t more retirement advice that pertains to us peasants! But it sounds like you’ve done your homework and have a solid understanding of your expenses and available resources, so you’re on the right track. And you’re not alone when saying you will not be retiring with a million dollars to your name. On average, those ages 55 to 64 have about $104,000 put aside for retirement. That’s nowhere near enough, according to some experts, but there also a lot more options now for those who wish to retire with less.
You can also think of your mom worrying this way: She cares. It’s parents’ job to not only worry about their kids but to also want the best for them and make sure they are safe, secure, and happy—even decades after they’re out of diapers. In typical mom fashion, start printing articles like this with more realistic advice for those in the middle class, and leave them around for her to find. Don’t forget to give her a hug and thank her for caring, while you’re at it.
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