Pay Dirt

I Inherited Some Land With a Disturbing History

I’m not sure what my obligations are.

A field with a fence in South Carolina
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jonathan Hanna/Unsplash 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 come from a large family. I have five siblings and upwards of 15 cousins around my age. Out of everyone, I am the only one who is fully financially independent. When my father died 10 years ago, he left me a large parcel of the family land, located in a Southern state that none of the family actively lives in or wants to live in anymore. I have been paying the (admittedly extremely cheap) property taxes on the land and paying for maintenance and upkeep this whole time.

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During the pandemic I got into family history research and genealogy, and surprise, surprise: We’re descended from slaveowners. This made more urgent something I’ve been thinking about ever since I inherited the land: I want to donate it, either to a Black farming collective or return it to the Native American tribe to which it rightfully belongs. But what are my obligations to the rest of my family? I know some family members won’t want it or care, and others won’t be able to afford to buy me out, but I don’t know everyone’s situation that intimately. Would it be wrong to donate it without giving all my cousins and siblings first right of refusal?

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—I Don’t Want This Land

Dear I Don’t Want This Land,

I don’t think you have to give your cousins and siblings right of first refusal. Your father gave the parcel to you outright, and it doesn’t sound like anyone in the family has any real attachment to it—sentimental or otherwise. If you want to make sure you’re in the clear, you can consult with an estate attorney, then signal your intent to sell it to your relatives. But even then, it’s still your decision. This is no different from deciding to sell anything else that was left explicitly to you by your father. It’s now yours, and you can do what you please with it.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m 35 and my wife is 34. We’ve been together for seven years, married for two. We have no children. I made approximately twice as much as her. (She’s a teacher and I work in tech.) One of the general end results of that disparity is that a lot of “my” money ends up being saved for “us” things. This is fine with me—our assets are common goods in my view.

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The problem? She doesn’t see it that way. She is very uncomfortable having conversations about “our money” and “our financial planning” because she sees those assets as mine. Her family was never open about money with her, so she doesn’t really have a great template for these things. Even when our financial planner stops by, she is mostly an observer.

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I have been as understanding as I can be, but honestly, I’m sick of being in charge here. I want a full partner when it comes to our money and our futures. She will happily let me plan a complex and expensive vacation because “I” am paying for it, but I don’t want to do that by myself! Neither do I want to manage our investments on my own; I married a partner, and not a silent one! She’s not financially illiterate (she has a business degree), nor is she a shrinking violet, but this is becoming a significant roadblock in our relationship. What can I do here?

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—Reluctant Mr. Moneybags

Dear Reluctant Mr. Moneybags,

When there are income imbalances in a marriage, it’s not unusual for the person making less to feel less independent. Not everyone has a problem with this, but some people feel uncomfortable with this dynamic, and that may be the case with your wife. Acknowledging that money you made is essentially hers too may make her feel like she’s being financially supported by you, and viewing your money as yours alone might make her feel better about being subsidized by your income. I realize that this may seem irrational, since she’s happy to let you spend on her behalf for things like vacations, but it’s probably about her feelings of self-worth, not the money itself.

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That said, I think you need to have a conversation with her about the fact that the burden she’s placing on you isn’t the money; it’s that she doesn’t participate in financial planning. She needs to know that it makes you feel like you don’t have a full partner, and there should be some division of labor on that front. It may be helpful to give her some specific things you’d like her to start doing, instead of a general request that she get more involved.

It may also be that she just doesn’t like dealing with financial issues at all and views your current situation as a reasonable division of labor, in return for which she picks up other responsibilities that you may not want. Either way, you need to understand her motivations for avoiding it, and she needs to understand that it makes you feel she’s checked out of the relationship when it comes to thinking about your future.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m struggling to have empathy for other people’s struggles with money. I’m a grad student, and I feel like I have everything I need and most of what I want (financially, at least). If I doubled my salary, I would still qualify for housing assistance in my city! I know everyone has struggles that are hard to see from outside, and being satisfied with an ascetic lifestyle is moral luck, but how do I stop thinking “just stop spending on alcohol and other luxuries” when people who make more than me are complaining?

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—Getting By by Judging

Dear Getting By,

You don’t know what’s happening in other people’s lives. An ascetic lifestyle may work for you precisely because you don’t struggle with money. (And it’s odd to me that you don’t. If you qualify for housing assistance and your salary is half the requirement for it, I’m not sure how you’re able to afford rent. I live in New York City, and the only way that would be possible here is if you live with 8.9 roommates in a tiny illegal sublet.)

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At any rate, people derive happiness from all sorts of things, and for some people that involves socializing with friends over drinks, occasionally buying nice things, being able to travel, and so on. You’re content with your frugality, but other people might find it claustrophobic or isolating.

You also don’t know what else people are spending on. Your friends may be caretakers for relatives or others, they may have student debt, they may have chronic illnesses you can’t see that cost money, or any number of other unavoidable expenses. That may be what’s causing them financial stress, not the occasional cocktail at the fancy bar. The idea that people should just stop spending on anything that isn’t purely necessary for survival misunderstands how people cope with stress and find happiness and satisfaction. And financial security is important, but so is happiness, mental stability, relationships with other people, and having the freedom to make choices about how to spend leisure time. It’s true that money can’t buy happiness overall, but it can buy things that make people happy sometimes.

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We also know from research that people spend more money on goods as income increases. And what some economists define as “luxury spending” is anything disproportional to income—substituting dinner out for instant ramen, for example. It could also mean paying for things like preventative health care. This is not abnormal behavior, but it means that people are not necessarily saving more when they make more.

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Also consider that your friends might be complaining about money for reasons that have little to do with their personal balance sheet. They may be underpaid and feel that it’s unfair. They might be squeezed by a landlord in a city where rent is going up unsustainably. They may have been clobbered with unexpected expenses lately that are creating extra pressure. So while you should be proud of yourself for having reached a point of financial stability, you should understand that you have circumstances and personal preferences that allowed you to do that, and have some empathy for people who may not be in a similar situation.

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One way to develop empathy is to actually listen to what people are saying when they air complaints and ask questions. You already understand academically that you don’t necessarily know what other people’s circumstances are, but you don’t seem to have internalized it. Questioning your own assumptions is a step toward doing that.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My mom and I moved to the States when I was in my early teens and left a lot of family furniture with family friends instead of paying for storage. Then my mom died, and now I’m a single guy in my mid-30s wondering what to do with a bunch of furniture thousands of miles away. As much as I love the memories I have about certain pieces, I don’t picture myself ever living somewhere that has space for some of it. There are some things I’d like to keep, but what is the right thing to do with the rest? Can I sell the furniture my mom’s friends have stored for years and give them a cut, or should I just walk away and consider it their own at this point? Is it OK to call them up and ask for certain items back (a lamp, a mirror)? Most of them are in their 70s now, so I feel a bit of pressure to figure this out sooner rather than later.

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—Too Much Stuff

Dear Too Much Stuff,

I’m sure the family friends are at a loss for what to do with the furniture as well, and you have a responsibility to figure out what to do with it. If you don’t contact them, that means you’ve dumped a bunch of your mom’s stuff on your family friends that they may not want and keeps them in limbo. So I think your best course of action here is to call them up, explain your position, and see if they have any interest in the pieces. It’s also perfectly reasonable to ask to keep certain things, since they all belong to you in the first place. Perhaps they could sell the ones they don’t want to cover the costs of shipping the others to you. But you have a duty to relieve them of these items.

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—Elizabeth

Classic Prudie

I just got out of a financial and romantic wreck. My boyfriend moved his mistress into my guest bedroom, telling me she was a co-worker who “needed a place to stay.” When I found out the truth, I kicked them both out. My ex called me last week, accusing me of taking more than $10,000 in cash. I told him he was out of his mind and hung up. He also left a lousy old couch at my place and refused to come pick it up. While I was pushing it out to the curb, I found an envelope full of cash under one of the cushions. Part of me wants to wait a few months, then use the cash to celebrate. The only thing giving me pause is that it is technically his parents’ money and they were always kind to me.

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