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 partner of several years struggles with pretty extreme food addiction. Since they’ve moved in to my house, their food habits have been a drain on our budget. I used to grocery shop once per week prior to their moving in and stuck to cooking my groceries—planning for once or twice a week when I’d dine out with friends. Now, seemingly on a whim my partner will get set on grabbing takeout or getting something else from the grocery store to make a completely different meal than what’s at the house. I ask their input on planning groceries for the weekly shop, but the very next day they’re unwilling to eat anything in the fridge.
When I have gently pushed back asking to stick to what we have on hand, reminding them that food is keeping us from achieving financial goals, they freak out and have huge meltdowns or go completely catatonic and threaten a hunger strike. I am at my wits end on how to get our food budget back under control without causing more drama, because tens of thousands of dollars on takeout and additional groceries is much too much for me to ignore at this point.
—Tired of Eating the Vacation Fund
You don’t offer details, so I’ll take you at your word that your partner has a genuine food addiction, even though that’s a complicated concept. The reason your partner has such an adverse reaction to talking about cutting back on food purchases is because you are threatening their coping mechanism. They aren’t intentionally trying to derail your financial progress, although I can easily see why it would feel that way.
Addiction is caused when an activity spikes a dopamine release in your brain. The spike or “high” is what soothes you and you keep coming back for more each time you’re stressed. This is how an addiction becomes a coping mechanism. When you feel threatened or stressed out, you use. Unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, you can’t cold-turkey food because you need it to survive. It’s just a matter of your brain knowing when to stop.
You can’t out-budget this situation, so the first step is to persuade your partner to start therapy. A therapist can help your partner realize what a healthy relationship with food looks like and enable them to develop healthier coping mechanism. There are more affordable options these days, and if your partner won’t go, you still can. I also recommend you looking into a support group for friends and families of addicts. Start keeping your food expenses separate, and for the time being, only worry about yourself. You can’t control what your partner spends and consumes, but you can start to draw up boundaries for what you are willing to participate in.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My parents passed away when my sister and I were teenagers, and we are now both in our late 40s. They left us enough money to finish college plus about $100,000 each. I used those funds very frugally early in life and saved most of it for retirement. My sister burned through everything quickly and has repeatedly gone through boom/bust cycles. We earn about the same amount, but my family is much more comfortable and has saved a lot more for retirement because of choices we each made. We like to vacation with her family, but inevitably I pay for things in the moment and she either never pays me back or short-changes me. She will also tell me she’s going to send me money for my kids’ birthdays, which I tell them, and then she never pays up—so either they don’t get a gift or I’m on the hook. My husband and I generally do fine, but we are self-employed and are staring down the cost of college for two kids, so we’re careful with our money. We’ll survive if she never pays me back, but it’s a bummer to feel like I’m always on the hook because I’m more careful with my money.
My sister is sensitive about money and inevitably when I press her to pay me back it’s a bad time for her and I end up feeling terrible. Should I just accept that she’s never going to fully cover her share? I hate nickel-and-diming everything on vacation, but we have a family trip planned to Hawaii, and I simply can’t afford to cover more than my family’s share. How do I change this dynamic?
—Little Sister, Not the Bank
Dear Not the Bank,
I’ll ask this as gently as possible: When is your sister going to ever not be sensitive about money? It sounds like she goes on these trips knowing she can’t pay her share and won’t have to if she plays her cards right. In order to change the dynamic, you need to put some boundaries in place, stat.
From now on, you are no longer in charge of booking accommodations for everyone. If she wants a shared house rather than separate condos, she’ll need to pay for it, and you’ll send her your share. If she does not have money to book her own travel, she does not need to be going on vacation. If she asks why the sudden change, share that you have less cash flow due to upcoming expenses and can no longer spot her. She’ll probably be upset and try to manipulate you, since you’re establishing a new dynamic, but hold your ground.
Next, spend some time reflecting on why you are enabling her in the first place. Is it guilt for doing so well and being smart with your money? Is it you wanting to look after her due to your parents dying young? We enable people when we have something to gain or lose. Start keeping track of feelings or thoughts you are having when it comes to this situation to see if there is a pattern or trigger. I hope it’ll help you to see your role and find different ways to show support without emptying your pocketbook.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m in a great relationship with a lovely man. We have both been married before, and in both relationships I have been the lower earner, as I’m younger and earlier in my career. My ex had always promised that he would make sure I was financially secure if we broke up, but when we divorced, he went back on this verbal promise. I didn’t want legal and emotional hassle and ended up taking very little with me, leaving the car and the house behind, and getting into some debt in order to scrape together a deposit to rent a flat with friends. Basically, I felt very financially vulnerable for a while, and somewhat burned by the broken promise.
My current relationship is very different: He has helped me to pay off my debt, and now I earn nearly as much as him. However, I don’t have any savings yet, but he has a savings account with around $10,000. I am about to have another short break in work, as I am pregnant. We want to buy a house (we rent currently), and my mum, who recently came into some money, has offered to give me a large sum for the deposit, around $40,000. What is the fair and right thing to do to ensure we have an equal “stake” financially in the house? I want to feel safe if we break up, but I don’t want to place my partner in the same unfair position I was in before. But as a younger woman, it never feels like I’m quite the financial equal I want to be.
—Not So Independent Woman
Dear Independent Woman,
I want you from now on to know you are a financial equal, no matter what relationship you are in. You are a badass woman who can do badass things. You can protect yourself while being fair, and it’s your job to do just that when it comes to your finances.
Your first step, if you haven’t yet, is to figure out how much house you can afford. You can use an online tool like Zillow to connect to a lender who can do a preapproval—though sometimes you’ll be preapproved for more than comfortably fits your budget, so make sure you know your ceiling. A preapproval can also let you know if your debt-to-income ratio and credit score will affect your interest rate or even the chance of you getting a loan.
I do not suggest putting the home title in both of your names if you are not both on the mortgage. The title is sometimes more important than the mortgage, as it can predict how your property will be divided should you part ways. A tenancy-in-common title can state that someone owns more of the home because they put more money toward a down payment. So if you put down $40,000 on a $100,000 home, and your partner puts $10,000 toward it, you would own 40 percent and he would own 10 percent. You could also do a joint tenancy with right of survivorship, where you both own the home and cannot sell or keep the property without the other’s consent.
There are other ways to divide this up, too: You both put the same amount down, and you keep the rest in an emergency fund and cover the cost of a new couch and mattress. I think you should research all of the ways you could approach this, then sit down and discuss your list with him. Share your concerns, talk through the options, and explain which you prefer. At the end of the day, do what you feel is right and fair and brings you peace of mind.
Dear Pay Dirt,
How do I get started building a nest egg? I’m in my mid-30s, and I’ve never been a person with a lot of disposable income thanks to my parents “paying” for my undergrad degree by taking out loans in my name, getting a minimum-wage retail job after I graduated, and then racking up almost as much as my college tuition in credit card debt with primarily irresponsible spending. I’m proud to say I’ve gotten ahold of the credit card debt. I’ve consolidated it with personal loans that’ll be paid off in just over a year, I’ve learned to control my spending habits, and I make $65,000 annually now. My student loan has been refinanced and is manageable. But while I’ve done things like direct deposit into a savings account that I don’t touch unless it’s an emergency, I still don’t feel like I quite know the best way to handle any extra income I have. How do I learn to manage my money better?
—Recovered Credit Card Addict
Kuddos to putting down the card and making some major money moves! You are on the right track. Now we just need to point you toward the finish line. You learn how to manage your money better by doing research. I think your best bet is to start off with a fee-only-based financial adviser.
Paying a flat fee to talk to a professional is more than worth it. Financial advisers will help you set goals for your future related to your income and help you understand which financial products are the best match for you. This is a great way to set up your financial future for success and start the healthy saving habits that will get you there. You can ask your friends for recommendations, or you can find an adviser using the Garett Planning Network.
If you want to wait on the finance adviser, the internet has loads of personal finance advice (like this column!), both free and paid. I love the book Broke Millennial by Erin Lowry for general financial advice. I also recommend aiming to save three to six months of expenses in your emergency fund. Finally, make sure you’re taking advantage of any 401(k) match or any other retirement benefits your employer might offer, or look into a Roth IRA that you can do on your own (or both). Good luck!
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