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 boyfriend and I are both in our 40s and have similarly comfortable incomes and savings. Four years ago, he and his dog moved from his condo closer to the city to my older semi-rural property. He has talked about selling or renting his place, but at present it sits empty. We each pay mortgages and utilities on our own properties. Beyond splitting groceries, he is not willing to contribute toward expenses at my house. I sort of understand this—his investment is his to do whatever he wants with. My home is older and requires a lot more maintenance and repair, all of which I pay for. Most of it (roof, windows) I’d have had to do anyway, some of it (plumbing, appliances, flooring) perhaps increased use contributes to.
More than the money, I think I resent the one-sidedness of this arrangement. It’s not his house, not his worry, and anytime anything breaks or doesn’t work as well as brand new, he is looking at me to fix or replace it. He is not at all handy, while I am a little bit. On the other hand, we each picked the properties of our choice before we knew each other. I don’t know if I am being reasonable in wanting more something from him—money? help? moral support?—or if I chose this house and have no right to expect him to take much interest in it as long as he pays the mortgage on the empty condo. Your thoughts?
Dear Equal Housing,
I think it’s reasonable for your boyfriend to pitch in with expenses, since he’s not paying you rent and is living in your house, but it’s also clear that he feels no ownership of it, so the idea of spending money on things that might be regarded as capital improvements bothers him. I think you need to talk about your long-term living situation and clear some of these expectations up.
Do you foresee a future where your partner will be a part owner of the house? Does he? Why is he paying for an empty condo that benefits neither of you while you’re living together in your house? Do either or both of you expect this arrangement to continue indefinitely? If he does take some ownership of the house, how much right do you feel he has to make decisions about any modifications? Is this an issue of contention because one or both of you view the situation as temporary, or because you want more of a commitment to cohabitation?
I think it’s always difficult when people begin cohabitating in a space that one of them had originally, because even when they’re not in your situation (where the house is entirely owned by one party) and are both contributing, the party whose space it was originally feels more ownership. Your partner may feel like a guest in your house and not a permanent resident. If you want him to literally invest in the house, you may have to first decide for yourselves what your respective investment is in the relationship, and what you want to share long term.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’ve found myself in a position that I’ve been dreaming of for years—kind of. My partner and I quit our jobs a month or so ago. We had the money saved up to do so and, honestly, we needed a break. We both have worked factory jobs for over five years, and that kind of work takes it out of you more than people realize. The break has been nice, and I’ve DoorDashed to make some petty cash through it, while my partner has done odd jobs.
Now my partner has an interview for a job. It’s more factory work, which is good money, but I know he doesn’t really want to go back. He’s also talked about me continuing my break from work. I want to be a housewife. I want to take care of our home and handle the bills and run errands and someday (hopefully!) watch over the kiddos while he works. I want to be able to keep a clean house and greet him with a hot meal at the end of the day. I want the time to be able to work on my own projects and hopefully boost them to the point of gaining some decent revenue. I know it’s not the most modern thing to dream of, but … it’s what I want.
But part of me is scared that if he agrees to it, our financial future is going to be less ideal. I worry that maybe someday he’ll resent me for being at home while he’s breaking his back working. I worry that guilt will overtake me, as it so often does, and I’ll end up miserable when I’m supposed to be happy. I worry he might get hurt at work or the landlord will raise our rent again or something will happen and we won’t have enough money. I worry about putting the burden all on him.
I haven’t shared my worries—not quite. We’ve discussed our finances, and I’ve told him that I’m a bit stressed about it. I know I should talk to him, and I know he’ll be patient and supporting, but I don’t even know where to begin. And I’m scared that I’ll talk myself into deciding something and end up stuck with the choice. What if I stay home and end up unhappy down the road, when I want to get out of the house and back into the world, but can’t because of children? What if something happens and we end up broke and scrambling and I can’t find a job because of gaps in my résumé? I don’t want to make a bad choice, and I don’t want my partner to suffer because of my dithering.
—Caught Between a Dream and a Hard Place
There’s nothing wrong with what you want for your life, and I think you just need to be honest with your partner about it. Marriage means confronting a lot of things that will be difficult and unexpected. Disparities in income and job losses are problems that can be difficult to navigate, but if you’re on the same page about what you want, you’ll get through it.
But you need to talk about these things now. Is your partner OK with being the sole breadwinner? If you decide you don’t enjoy being a stay-at-home mom and want to go back to work, what’s the plan for that? What’s the plan if your partner’s income isn’t enough to live on and working becomes a necessity?
Keep in mind that there are a lot of in-between options. Many people work at home or part time in order to balance family duties with the need to produce income. And once your future children are in school, you may find yourself wanting to do that anyway.
But aside from those considerations, you should also think of what financial security looks like for you and how you both define it. You also both need to be saving a bit each month for an emergency fund in case you need it, and you can start doing that now. It will give you a bit more peace of mind about what happens in the event of an emergency.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am a 52-year-old single mom whose only child will be entering college next year. I have been diligently living well below my means and have quietly saved enough money to pay for most of college costs. I currently make very little, about $30,000 a year. My ex makes about $300,000-plus. Somehow, he can’t save money. He is remarried, and she makes more than he does, and they have no children.
My ex has always said our son is the most important thing in his life but acts differently and has declined every request to plan for college, contribute jointly to college savings, etc. He refused to add any support into our divorce agreement, even though our son is on the autism spectrum and has learning differences. The other day, my son said, “If Dad can spend $30,000 on a new parking pad without a blink of an eye, I’m sure he’ll help me with college.” I think that my ex will weasel out of his promise to help our son through college, and concoct a story where he is the victim, but I would very much like to be wrong.
I’d like some advice on what I should ask, and how I should ask, if my ex will be helping out with college costs. I know the goal would be a simple “no” or a simple specific dollar amount. My ex is manipulative and passive aggressive. He also agrees to things and then reneges, and when confronted about it, he spins stories. I have not been successful in either sincerely asking or “demanding.” Even hiring a lawyer does not get a clear response from him. Before I give up and accept that my ex won’t be stepping up, I thought I’d ask you for advice.
—Deadbeat Millionaire Ex
Dear Deadbeat Millionaire Ex,
Ordinarily, potential college payments would be spelled out in your original divorce agreement, but it sounds like that didn’t happen. Depending on the state you’re in, you and your ex may be required to support your child financially until he’s 21. (In some states, the cap is 18.) Given this, your ex may have some legal obligations to contribute while your son is in college. You should consult with your family lawyer to see what your options are and whether the court can compel your ex to help out financially. In states where minors are considered emancipated at 18, you may not have any legal remedies if college payments were not a part of your original divorce agreement.
In the meantime, you need to talk to your ex about your son’s expectations and how it makes your son feel that he’s in a position to help and, so far, hasn’t. Make it clear that he still has an opportunity to do the right thing and remind him that he’s invested in your son’s future. Involve him in the planning if you can, with your son, so he can see for himself how important this is. Then, give him a deadline to decide. Tuition has to be paid before school starts, after all.
If he’s still not responsive, I think you have to move on and look at the options you and your son have to figure out college payments yourselves. Need-based grants are available at many colleges, and your son would receive a financial package that’s tied to your income. It’s not ideal, of course, but you don’t want to spend the next four years of your life chasing your inexplicably stingy ex for money that’s not going to materialize. He’s already demonstrated that he’s not very dependable on that front.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am a single woman of 58 who currently has full-time care of my elderly parents. (My mom has Alzheimer’s, and my dad has undiagnosed dementia and a heart condition.) My parents live in my home, and I am fully responsible for their welfare and finances. I also still work full time. My parents have designated in their wills that my brother—who never visits, even though he is only about a half-hour away; never calls; and only occasionally sends texts on birthdays and holidays—is to receive half of their estate after they both pass. I am the sole executor of their estates. What sort of obligation do I have to pay half of their estate to a sibling who does nothing to assist in their care and shows little concern about their well-being?
—Carrying More Than My Share of the Load
Legally, you have an obligation to pay half of their estate to whomever they designate in their will, even if it’s your neglectful brother. As the executor of the estate, you can’t just veto their decision, and if you try to do it, your brother can take you to court and have you removed as trustee for not fulfilling your duties as executor.
But I understand your frustration. Being a caretaker is stressful and difficult, and your brother’s failure to help must feel very hurtful to you.
That said, an inheritance is not designed to be a reward for caretaking in the final days of someone’s life. Inheritances are designed to provide the next generation with some stability and, in some cases, generational wealth that they can ideally pass on to their children as well. For your own well-being, I think you need to view the inheritance for what it is: a gift. It’s not something you’re owed, because no parent owes their children an inheritance. And while you may not think your brother deserves any part of it, your parents clearly don’t feel the same, and you have to respect what you understand to be their intent—which is probably as simple as the fact that they love your brother and want to make sure he is taken care of, too, even if he’s not around much.
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For reasons known only to a 30-year-old man-child, my brother stored nearly 20 grand in $100 bills in an oversized teddy bear he won at a fair. The reason I know about this is that Mom is moving to Portland with her new partner. My brother made promises to come and help pack things up and to claim anything he wants from the house, but he never followed through. In the end, Mom and I cleared out his old room, boxed up anything that looked important, and donated the rest. Luckily I was struck with an urge to be a jerk and hauled the teddy bear upstairs to be the star of a “Don’t you wish you’d come to help like you said?” photoshoot. I found the money. He’s been quietly losing his entire cool as he tries to work out what we did with his childhood bear, without having to admit why. (The money is currently in the safe at my shop.) Should I tell him or let him panic a bit longer?