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 husband and I got married at the turn of the century and recently found out that we are an anomaly among our peer group because we have merged finances. We have our own retirement accounts, but all of our income otherwise goes into shared accounts. Our friends—some who married earlier than we did, some at the same time, some later—have one joint account for agreed-upon shared expenses, and then their own individual accounts for everything else. When our first couples-friends told us this, we thought they were out of the ordinary—all of our expenses are shared! We don’t get it. We started asking our other friends, and it turns out we are the outliers! We have opened a can of worms because our friends are universally appalled that we share everything and have “nothing” of our “own,” which just sounds … wrong. We vowed to share our lives. What’s with this modern financial split?
—Anachronisms Who Are Only in Our 40s
I’m not sure where you live or what the culture is like there, but you’re not an anomaly for married couples in general. I’m from rural Alabama and live in New York City now, and when I visit my friends and family down South, they think it’s weird that my husband and I have separate accounts because it’s not the norm there. (I’m also in my mid-40s.)
For what it’s worth, there’s some evidence that couples who pool 100% of their money are happier, possibly because it creates a sense of shared interest. But everyone has different motivations for approaching it one way or another. Personally, I like separate accounts because I need a lot of autonomy and independence in relationships, and so does my husband. We contribute jointly to expenses and plan for future purchases, but the separation removes any temptation for either of us to scrutinize minor personal expenses and saves us some potential conflict.
But it’s not for everyone. A lot of people want the kind of absolute merger you’re talking about in order to feel like the relationship is complete and reinforce the idea that it’s permanent. They view it as a symbol of commitment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone’s marriage works differently, and you need to do what works best for you and is reflective of how you want to conduct your partnership.
Dear Pay Dirt,
A few years prior to meeting my partner, his parents had purchased a home for him in hopes that he would be able to strengthen his income and purchase the house from them. I moved in with him during our relationship. It was communicated to us repeatedly that he (and later his parents often used the term “we”) would purchase the home. I had some hesitation about putting money into a home that I wasn’t entirely sure was mine, but I was assured repeatedly by him (and them) that the plan remained the same.
When we were engaged to be married, we sat down to discuss purchasing the home together from his parents. Boy, was I surprised. Not only did they not want to sell him the home, but they did not want me to have any part in the ownership of the home. They had it deeded to him upon their death. Do we abandon all the money we put into the house and buy elsewhere? We would love to strengthen our credit and be free from their grip, but I feel equally torn to see him throw away 10-plus years of money and work, and our area is really expensive.
Dear Parental Renters,
I think your husband needs to communicate to his parents that where he lives and who he lives with isn’t really their decision to make. They presumably will not be living in this house, but he (and you) will if you choose to stay. And if you decide to move, it’s completely reasonable to ask them to reimburse you for some of the money you’ve put into the house, since they’ve reneged on their promise.
It’s also unclear from your letter whether your husband even wanted this house. When you say “we” would love to “be free from their grip,” I assume that means he resents the situation as well. So it may make sense to think of the money you’ve already put into the house as a sunk cost. Your existing investment will not make you enjoy the house more in the future or solve the problem of your in-laws trying to control how you choose to share your assets. If you really loved the house, I think it would be worth trying to work something out with them, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. I think you should start clean, and look for a place you and your husband will both love and can co-own, together.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’ve been splitting the check with friends for years—it’s become second nature. There’s never been an issue since we all eat and drink a similar amount. But now my friends have growing families, and it’s expected that we continue to evenly split the check. This is regardless of whether my friends have three kids with them and I have one kid or their kids order the most expensive seafood special and an app and dessert and my kid orders something from the kids’ menu. And don’t get me started on the items these people allow their kids to order and simply go to waste. I should not even worry or care what my friends’ kids order, but if we split the check, I’m basically paying for them. I’ve started asking the waitresses for separate checks or asking to divvy the bill based on what we ordered, but I’ve gotten so many sighs and eye rolls for “making it difficult.” And I’m told I’m being cheap for having my daughter order from the kids’ menu, and I should have her order as much as the other kids are ordering. I’m starting to dread going out to these meals. How should I handle it?
—So Many Kids, So Much Wasted Food
Dear So Many Kids,
It is completely reasonable to ask for separate checks when you’re dining with multiple families. And the only scenario in which it’s not reasonable for your daughter order from the kids’ menu is if she’s not a kid. You should, however, ask for separate checks up front because asking for the split after the meal can create more work for wait staff.
And if you’re starting to dread going out to these meals, there are probably other avenues through which you can spend time with your friends. Restaurants are not the only option.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I divorced my husband three years ago after he quit his job eight years ago and never went back. I had the better-paying job when we both worked, and I guess he decided he didn’t need to work. He pays no child support for our daughter, and he got about a third of our assets in the divorce (including half of my 401k). I paid alimony to him for two years. I had a hard time leaving him because I was worried about how he would take care of himself, and I still worry about him now, since he seems content to live off the divorce settlement (even though it’s not enough to last more than five years or so). I think my teen daughter is learning from me how to be financially independent and to work hard, but how do I teach her not to marry someone like her dad without speaking ill of him?
—Don’t Be a Daddy’s Girl
Dear Don’t Be a Daddy’s Girl,
I think you can’t really engineer who your daughter decides to fall in love with, but you can show her how to be fiscally responsible herself. She’s probably already aware of your ex-husband’s shortcomings on that front, and it’s very likely that it’s already shaping what she may or may not find appealing in a partner. Regardless, you can teach her independence and the importance of taking responsibility for her actions. If she internalizes those values, I think it’s unlikely that she’d want to marry someone who doesn’t have them.
My good friend has found her mate after several failed relationships and is desperate to be married and start her family (tick tock). I am thrilled that she is engaged, and 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?