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 have three grandchildren, “Kris,” “Jessica,” and “Sam.” My grandmother inherited a beautiful diamond necklace from her mother that is worth a couple thousand dollars. It is the only big piece of jewelry in our family, and my grandmother left it to me with instructions to give it to my oldest granddaughter.
For the past 21 years, Jessica has been my oldest and only granddaughter, and she was told that she would get the necklace when she graduated college, which she did at the start of the summer. The thing is, Kris, who is older than Jessica, came out as a trans woman last year. She feels that since she’s the oldest granddaughter now, she deserves the necklace. Her father has told me that by giving Kris the necklace, I would be “truly acknowledging her as a woman,” (even though I have always accepted her and respected her identity). Jessica, on the other hand, feels that it would be unfair to give Kris the necklace, as she has been promised it for years and wanted to pass it on to her grandchildren one day. She and Kris aren’t speaking, and my son (Kris’ dad) is being very passive-aggressive with me and insinuating that I am being transphobic by not giving Kris what is “rightfully hers.” I don’t know what to do. Jessica has been promised she’d receive the necklace when she graduated, but technically, since Kris is my oldest granddaughter, she also has a claim to it. How can I solve this without tearing my family apart?
Dear Necklace Nightmare,
This is a tough one. I think the necklace should probably go to Jessica simply because she’s been promised it for so long. But the real issue with Kris seems to be that she’s not sure if her transition is really being accepted by people in your family.
But surely there are other ways to demonstrate that without breaking a promise to Jessica. Are there other family heirlooms that might have the same symbolism? Can you create a new one that’s explicitly for her? I have no idea what the necklace looks like, but is it possible to have it remade into two pieces of jewelry, one for each of them? If your acceptance of Kris is in any doubt, you should also spend more time with her and make it clear, by demonstrating it, that you love and accept her.
I think it would be a different situation if you had known Kris was trans when Jessica was promised the necklace. In that case, it should have been promised to Kris instead. Regardless, both of your granddaughters should be more empathetic toward each other and toward you. Jessica should better understand why Kris wants the necklace, and Kris should better understand the ramifications of a broken promise to Jessica. If you can, it might make sense to get them in the same room and have a conversation with them about it before you make a decision.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am in my mid-30s, and my parents are in their late 60s. When I was younger, my mom stayed at home and took care of me and my brother while my dad worked for the government. Ever since I can remember, my mom has spent beyond her means—expensive bags, skin care routines, clothes, etc. She grew up wealthy, and I don’t think she ever adjusted to being middle class.
Dad retired from his government job a few months ago. I know he has a pension, and he also works some part-time gigs. Recently, he confided in me that my mom’s spending is still out of control. Usually, I cut off any conversations that one parent tries to have with me about the other, but my dad sounded so upset that I let him talk. He told me that if she keeps spending like she is, he’ll have to keep working for the rest of his life in order to provide for them. Naturally, the conversation made me worry about their financial future. Nana (my mom’s mom) is still alive and wealthy. When she passes away, my mom will likely inherit a good amount of money. I know this because Nana asked me to be a signatory to her will.
When Nana dies, I want to sit down with Mom and Dad and make sure that they put a plan in place to ensure that the money they inherit will provide them a comfortable retirement. I am so nervous that Mom is going to burn through it. Is it OK for me to have that conversation with my parents? Should I do it now? Or should I butt out completely and let the chips fall where they may?
—Parents’ Potential Financial Ruin
Your Nana has given you an excellent pretext for having this conversation now, and it might even be helpful to consult her first or include her in it. What your parents do with the money isn’t just about their financial future, but yours as well. If your mom manages to burn through the inheritance and your parents need medical care or assistance or any kind as they get older, they may not be able to pay for it. And it’s not unreasonable for your Nana to want to have a sense of how the inheritance will be used, especially as it relates to anything she would like to see eventually passed on to grandchildren.
If it’s really a problem, your Nana could also set up a discretionary trust that would dictate how and when her assets will be distributed. In this case, a trustee would manage disbursements, and your mom would be prevented from burning through the inheritance immediately because she wouldn’t get it in one lump sum. Note that your mom will probably see this as punishment for her spending behavior and might not be very happy about it, but discretionary trusts are sometimes used for the explicit purpose of protecting a beneficiary from their own bad decision-making, and it seems like this might be warranted in your mom’s case.
I think your instincts are right here, and you shouldn’t ignore the potential problem. Your dad is obviously concerned about it as well and will probably be relieved that you’re trying to help.
Dear Pay Dirt,
At the beginning of 2020, I landed what was potentially my dream job in a hotel kitchen. I also kept my job at a chain restaurant, as I was planning to buy a condo at the end of the year. When I was furloughed in March (and ultimately laid off in June), I was 11 days shy of qualifying for unemployment benefits. I had too much in savings to qualify for SNAP or any other government aid, even though my now-only job was leaving me about $300 a month in the red. I bounced through several second jobs and ultimately came out relatively unscathed, but also making 60 percent of the money I was bringing in at the beginning of the 2020.
Now that I’m finally looking at getting out of my rental again, the housing market exploded. The very same condo I was eyeing last February at $130,000 just sold for $170,000. I’m picking up every spare shift at both jobs, I’ve paid about 80 percent of my car loan, and to outsiders I have no money issues. (I have multiple co-workers who are living out of their cars right now.) But I can’t shake just how badly the current world situation treated me, while those who were getting expanded unemployment benefits are driving the market up. No one I try to talk to sees my issues. Am I just being greedy, or do I have a point?
You have every right to feel disappointed by how all of these things worked out. The pandemic has affected many people in ways that are not always so obvious. People are struggling with mental health issues, grieving lost loved ones, mourning the loss of a year or more of plans that never came to fruition. You don’t have to be living out of your car to feel angry and upset by how everything has turned out.
And you are not alone. There are plenty of people in similar situations who feel the same way. That other people have had it worse doesn’t negate your experiences, and if no one you talk to is sympathetic, you may be talking to the wrong people.
But I take issue with your assertion that people who are getting expanded unemployment benefits are driving the market up. There’s no evidence of that, and plenty of evidence that people have found alternatives or simply decided, in the wake of a pandemic, that they need to find different work—which is unsurprising, given that we live in a country where the cost of living has outpaced minimum wage, and worker protections, especially in the food service industry, are abysmal. Your multiple co-workers who are living out of their cars are evidence of that. And some people simply have not been able to recover their jobs, because their employers aren’t rehiring yet, or those jobs have disappeared entirely because the business failed or downsized. People getting unemployment benefits are not making your life worse; they’re just trying to survive.
Nonetheless: It behooves you to think of your situation as a blank slate. None of us can undo the misery of the last year, and your goals haven’t changed. You’ve already made a lot of progress, and it’s important to recognize that and be proud of it. It’s just going to take you longer to get there, and sometimes that happens, even in the absence of a major event like a pandemic.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My friend’s 21-year-old daughter is totally lacking in motivation, and she keeps asking me for advice and to have talks with this girl. The girl failed out of community college, got kicked out of Navy boot camp, stole $1,200 from her previous employer (she sold all her furniture and everything she could find to pay them back so they wouldn’t prosecute her), and now has a new job but manages to spend every penny that comes in. Her mother has worked very hard to build up a nice estate and has several rental properties. I have watched this girl’s face light up when her mother says that she plans to leave her very well-situated. I have told the mother it is not a good idea for any kid to think they are going to have a worry-free, easy life; it kills the initiative so many might have.
I told the mother she should force her to turn over her paychecks to her and give the little darling a strict allowance and no more. She needs to practice some very tough love. If that doesn’t suit the girl, give her a small tent and a sleeping bag and tell her to hit the road. I absolutely have no more ideas. My kids were never assured of anything they didn’t earn themselves, and they are both well-educated professionals. I don’t know that it was because we did anything right, but rather that we just didn’t have any extra to spread around. I am at a total loss as to what to tell her when I am asked. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
—Hopeless in Dallas
It sounds like your friend’s daughter has a lot of issues that have nothing to do with financial irresponsibility, and I think you have to view her financial irresponsibility in that context. She hasn’t been thriving (or even surviving) in work and educational settings and doesn’t know how to be independent. Kicking her out of the house might force her to learn how, but it’s just as likely that her problems just get worse. I’m very skeptical that her problems boil down to a simple lack of initiative.
You also need to know where appropriate boundaries are. Your friend is asking you for advice, so it’s fair to give it to her, but don’t assume her child is like yours. Her daughter probably needs counseling (both of the career sort and the mental health sort) before she starts becoming financially responsible. Doing so requires being able to understand and plan for the long term. If her daughter feels hopeless about the long term, or feels that she’s incapable of planning for it, that may be what’s driving her reckless spending behavior.
And, of course, it is possible that she’s relying on some future inheritance windfall and is just being lazy. But most of the time when people exhibit the constellation of problems you just articulated, there’s a lot more going on, and the financial irresponsibility is a symptom, not the disease.
I am incredibly fortunate to come from a wealthy family—like 1-percent wealthy. I chose to work in a job that makes about 30 percent of what I otherwise could, because I feel a responsibility to give back and I really love what I do. My problem is some of my co-workers, who constantly disparage people with money and people who come from money. Even though they don’t know that I am one of those people, it’s hard for me to nod along and just let someone disparage me and my family—grouping all rich people together as evil, or mocking trust-fund recipients as lazy do-nothings, when I know it’s not true. I’m right here in the trenches doing the same work as them.