Pay Dirt

My Sister-in-Law Made Her Daughter Play a Bizarre Card Game to Determine Her Financial Fate

Should I say something?

playing cards
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus and Spoon Graphics.

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

I was asked to observe a card game between my niece and her mother, and my niece seemed unusually nervous throughout. Afterward, I learned that the game was to decide whether she would have to pay rent to live at home! She was offered a certain rate, or she could make it double or nothing by playing this game. On the positive side, she won, but I can’t get over what a strange thing this was to do, or what lesson she might take from this. My brother said this wasn’t his idea, and I’m hesitant to talk to my sister-in-law about this. I do want to talk to my niece. I almost feel like I should offer to let her live with me if there is a problem, but I’m not sure how that would work out. I definitely want to caution her against gambling. What should I say to her?

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—Concerned Aunt

Dear Concerned Aunt,

This does seem like a bizarre way to decide how much responsibility your niece should take for rent. (I assume your niece is not a minor, and the alternative is that she gets her own place.) But I wouldn’t worry that she’s going to develop a gambling problem unless you see some other signs that she does this regularly. And I wouldn’t volunteer to have her live with you unless there are some larger issues with her home situation that put her at risk. You may not agree with how your sister-in-law chose to adjudicate this conflict over rent, but ultimately, it’s not really your place to step in unless you think your niece is in a truly dangerous situation.

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It also sounds as if you’re not really sure what led to this decision to resolve the rent conflict over cards, and while you may not approve, you may not have all of the context, either. Regardless, it’s inappropriate for you to approach your niece without talking to your sister-in-law first. Otherwise, you’re intervening in a parenting decision that seems eccentric but not harmful, and doing so will probably create new conflict with your brother as well as your sister-in-law and is unlikely to actually help your niece.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My mother lives with my family (me, my husband, and our son), and she gives us money each month to help with her expenses. It’s more than we asked for, and we have pushed back, but she persists. Last week, she was out of town and had a medical emergency and has been in the hospital going on a week. I came down to be with her and have had the expected expenses (hotel, food, gas, etc). I know for certain she will want to reimburse me for everything and then some. She wanted to write me a check yesterday, while still in her hospital bed.

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I feel like I ought to refuse it. She has more important things to worry about right now, and I see it as part of being an adult who’s taking care of an aging parent. Life happens, and we roll with it. And she’s been overpaying her “rent” since she moved in last year. And of course she’ll have bills relating to this adventure. At the same time, we’ve had some unexpected expenses recently, so we have less of a cushion in our savings, and the money would be helpful. Do I let her pay me back? It would probably make her feel better (she enjoys being able to help us, and it helps her feel like less of a burden), but I’ll feel guilty for taking it. And if I don’t accept it, how do I stop her from adding to her rent check to get around my protests?

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—I Just Want Her to Feel Better

Dear Want Her to Feel Better,

I understand why you don’t want to take money from your mother, but there’s an element of what it does for her that I think you’re not considering. If she’s paying for what she thinks she owes (both in terms of rent and expenses), it probably makes her feel more autonomous and less dependent on you. One of the difficulties of aging is having to rely on others increasingly for help in the face of physical decline, and it may be that your mother sees this as a way of preserving some of her independence.

If you think she’s just being generous as a gesture, I can understand why you’d have reservations, but you acknowledge that you suspect that part of the issue is that “it helps her feel like less of a burden.” That may be very emotionally important to your mother, and you shouldn’t discount it as a lesser consideration than your own feelings of guilt about taking the money. I think your intentions are good, but you need to make sure that in the process of refusing her checks, you’re not depriving her of something that’s more important to her than the money. If you still can’t shake the guilt, perhaps you could earmark any extra she gives you for an emergency fund, should the need arise down the road.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

During the real estate crisis, I purchased a foreclosed townhouse for $26,000 cash. It is now worth approximately $240,000. I allow my older brother to live there rent-free, and I pay the HOA fee and utilities. He has EBT for food. I retired early, and while not wealthy, I am comfortable, own my primary residence outright, can afford to travel, and live within my means.

My question is how to deal with friends who simply cannot let it go that I should sell and kick my brother out. My brother is severely alcoholic—I wouldn’t even say a “functioning” alcoholic. He doesn’t and cannot work, and he will never, ever seek help, so don’t even bother suggesting an intervention. Am I an enabler? Yes, of course I am. I know that, but he’d be living under a bridge if I weren’t.

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He is a surprisingly great grandfather to his daughter’s children and babysits them regularly, allowing her to work. He does not drink in front of the kids and is helping to raise them to be as responsible as he raised his own two children, who are both pretty great. How he did such a good job parenting them but cannot get his own life under control, I will never understand.

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I have repeatedly told friends this situation is not changing. I do not need to sell. I do not even need to collect rent. I could not live with myself were my brother to become homeless because I only cared about the almighty dollar. Is there some way to get my friends—who I feel truly only have my best interests at heart—to finally just let this go and stop harping about it? I have been seeing less and less of them (my choice) because I am sick to death of this issue constantly being raised.

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—Family Before Money

Dear Family Before Money,

You need to diplomatically tell your friends that what you choose to do with your own house is none of their business. Deciding to be a caretaker for a family member instead of profiting from the sale of your property is a completely valid decision, and one that demonstrates great compassion for your brother.

Addiction is complicated, and your friends are also demonstrating their ignorance of the problem when they suggest that housing your brother is enabling his alcoholism, particularly when the alternative is homelessness. The tough love approach might seem like it works in Hallmark movies, but in real life it can often create more damage. When people with addictions don’t have their basic needs met—and shelter and food are minimum requirements—they can’t get sober. Your friends need to understand this and that addiction is not a failure of discipline. They’re not being helpful; they’re being judgmental.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My partner and I are planning to move in together in a few months. We have been together for two years and graduated college in 2020. My partner was unemployed and living with her parents for most of last year, until she found a job that she likes in a small city near her parents’ home. Neither her job nor the job I’ll start soon pay particularly well, but we’ve done some research into apartments, and it looks like we should be able to make it work.

The one problem is transportation: Neither of us has a car, and the public transport in the area is abysmal. My partner casually mentioned the idea of buying a car together, and though I didn’t show it, I totally freaked. I know that cars can be extremely expensive, and it seems like a dangerous prospect. What if one of us crashed it? What would we do with it if we broke up? In all other areas of our relationship, I feel totally secure—the idea of co-signing a lease with her doesn’t bother me at all, even though the same problems apply.

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It might partially be because I’m not much of a driver. I just don’t like it. In terms of work and basic necessities, I think I could make my way around with a bike and the occasional Uber, but I definitely see how a car would improve our quality of life. But I also feel bad asking her to shoulder the financial responsibility of car ownership. I’ve managed to accumulate a little money—it’s not a ton, but it’s probably a couple thousand more than she has. How do young couples navigate car ownership? Should I be leaning into these feelings or trying to disentangle them from the financial question?

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—Carless and Confused

Dear Carless,

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It seems like this is more of a commitment issue than a question of whether you should get a car. If you’re concerned about the fate of the car in the event of a breakup, you can come to some agreement now about what you’d do and codify it in a contract. (Maybe one of you picks up the lease; maybe you sell the car and split the proceeds.) If you think it’s something else, it’s worth spending some time thinking that through.

If you choose to go forward with the purchase, it doesn’t have to be an insanely expensive vehicle. There are plenty of reliable used cars on the market, and as long as your credit is decent, affordable financing should be easy to find. You’ll need auto insurance, but that cost can vary greatly between providers and levels of coverage. If you haven’t leased or purchased a car before, some of this might seem intimidating, but a little research goes a long way, and educating yourself about the process will help you get comfortable with the risks.

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The question of whether you want responsibility for a car is another one entirely, and if you simply don’t feel ready, that’s OK. You say you can make do with a bike and Ubers, but if your partner chooses to buy the car without your help, are you going to feel like you’re at liberty to use what is essentially her car? If so, then you need to help shoulder the cost. This isn’t a decision that can’t ever be undone.

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—Elizabeth

Classic Prudie

My husband and I met working at a major tech company. He left with more than $2 million at age 36. On the outside, our life looks great. But he hasn’t worked since we got married nearly 20 years ago, and as a result, he’s blown through all our cash. I knew he was selling off stock but was unaware of the extent until a few years ago. Now we’re in our 50s with no savings. He’s deeply depressed. He keeps me up at night bemoaning how he’s a loser, and messed up his life, and I should leave him, or blaming me for it. I’m exhausted the next day but work on various projects—while he sleeps all day—and then the cycle starts again. I haven’t sold a book in years, and I know it’s partly due to the stress. What am I to do?

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