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 in-laws died a few years ago, and we received some money, about $12,000, which we used to pay off one car and do some home repair on our 25-year-old house. However, our two kids received $30,000—each. Gran left each kid a note telling them about their “college fund.” Both kids received full scholarships—even through their master’s programs. Neither one wants a Ph.D. What was my MIL thinking? We couldn’t pay for college? That she doesn’t trust us with money? We’d love to finish our house repairs (repairs—not remodel), plus have a little breathing room. We have it in a separate account because they were minors at the time. Our daughter has taken over hers. Our son just asks for money when he needs it (he just bought two new tires). It came from that account. We have not spent their money on anything except their large needs that we couldn’t afford. However, I’m …
—So Jealous of My Kids
Dear So Jealous,
This is not an unusual situation. Sometimes parents expect their own children to work harder than their grandchildren because they think your accomplishments are more reflective of how well or badly they parented you. Children are expected to make it on their own, and grandchildren exist to be spoiled. So what your MIL was likely thinking was that she wanted to make sure your kids got a head start. And she may have believed you should be able to take care of your own needs, in part because you have historically.
All of which is to say, it’s probably not about whether your MIL thought your kids were smart enough to get through college on scholarships, or thought you’d waste the money, but whether she thought she was ensuring that your kids’ generation could start their adult lives from a place of financial stability—and she viewed that as something you simply didn’t need at this stage in your life. I doubt that when she started saving, she knew your kids would be academic overachievers. And frankly, if you need breathing room right now, and money to pay for house repairs, I think it probably would have been difficult to pay for college had your kids been less gifted academically. Even the $30,000 your MIL provided might not have paid for a full degree at a lot of colleges.
And she simply may not have understood that you could have used the money, especially if you didn’t directly talk to her about it.
All of that said, I completely understand why this feels unfair, but I think you have to view the situation differently. An inheritance is a gift, not an entitlement, and $12,000 is $12,000 more than a lot of people get. Think of it as Grandma giving your children a bigger, more impressive holiday present. Yes, it would have been nice to get something equally impressive, and it’s OK to be disappointed about that. But make sure you also take time to appreciate your gift and the fact that your MIL was in a position to provide so generously for your kids.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am a widower after a 22-year marriage with two kids, currently in college. For the bulk of our marriage, I was the sole provider. This was a joint decision: My late wife stayed home to take care of the home and kids and allowed me to focus on a really demanding but lucrative career that would not have been possible had she been working too. We also made many sacrifices together when we were starting out. She supported me while I got my engineering degree, and we never bought new cars or nice furniture or took vacations. We lived a responsible life, maxed retirement from the start, and now I am reaping the rewards. I have a fully funded retirement, and I can now take vacations and enjoy life. My late wife, however, is not here to enjoy it with me.
I am lucky enough to have met a wonderful woman. We’re not married yet but headed in that direction, but she is not in the same financial position as me. She does not have any debt, she makes a good living, but she doesn’t have any real retirement savings. Through her earlier life, she has always worked hard but also took vacations, had material things, etc. She didn’t live irresponsibly—she just didn’t prioritize retirement over those things like I did, so now there is a significant difference in our net worths.
My dilemma is how we move forward as a couple into retirement. For me, I want to enjoy things my partner has already done. If I expect her to pay 50 percent, we cannot do all the things I can afford. If I pay 100 percent, then my kids will miss out on part of their inheritance, and I do feel their mother’s share should be theirs. I can’t say what that is, but I do know that I didn’t get where I am or save what I have by myself. She had to forgo the material things and vacations so we could have a nice retirement, and now she can’t enjoy it. I also believe my kids gave up a lot for me to have what I have. I was always working and missed many of their activities. I have huge regrets about that and make all I can of our time now. I don’t mind if my partner comes on these vacations, but I stop short of paying for her adult children to come. This makes me wonder if I am selfish about this. It sometimes makes me feel cheap, since I have more. Thanks for any advice and a perspective on how I get around my emotions surrounding all of this.
—Nothing Is Ever Simple
Dear Nothing Is Ever Simple,
As is usually the case, there’s no single right answer here. I think this is part of a larger conversation you need to have with your partner about what your mutual expectations are for sharing assets, and the solution that works best for you will be particular to the way you choose to conduct the marriage. For some couples, “what’s mine is yours” reinforces a sense of togetherness and a notion of permanence. For others, separate finances reinforce a sense of independence and fairness. So what works for you will depend on what sharing everything—including your respective retirement savings—means symbolically.
What does your partner expect? You may be assuming that she expects you to pay for more than you think she does, especially with regard to her adult children. You also need to understand how you both feel about being able to do these things in retirement. A lot of people don’t forgo vacations and things like that, not because they don’t value retirement savings, but because they don’t want to miss out on these things when they’re younger and more physically active, or because they want to make sure they have certain experiences before they die, and as you know from painful experience, no one is guaranteed a long life that ends after retirement.
I also think you should talk to your children about this. Personally, I would feel terrible if my parents were depriving themselves of meaningful experiences traveling and doing other things in retirement just to pad my inheritance account. I’d rather that they enjoy the time they have and do as much as they want to and are capable of doing. Your children may feel the same way and might not want you prioritizing saving more over experiencing more on their behalf.
Regardless, income and savings imbalances exist in nearly every marriage because it’s rare that any two people have the same financial trajectory. It would be very unusual if you and your partner had exactly the same amount of retirement savings. So maybe the way to look at this is to think about what you would expect if the shoe were on the other foot, and your partner came to the relationship with more savings than you for exactly the same reasons. What would you expect of her? You should have a discussion about this and figure out where you already agree and where there might be room for compromise where you don’t.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m a 20-year-old man who graduated high school, but I haven’t pursued more education. I come from an extremely poor family and have no savings but no real debt either. I am working a standard 9-to-5 job right now, with the potential to make nearly double the minimum wage in my area. At this point economically in my life, I’m seeking advice on how best to progress in the future and build a financially stable life. How do I transition from lower to middle class?
—Looking to Move Up
Dear Looking to Move Up,
I think the answer really depends on what you want to do for work long term, and whether a career is important to you. There are some people who view working solely as a path to income, so whether the job is personally fulfilling in any way is a secondary consideration. My dad was a high school grad and local lineman for more than 40 years and considered it a very good job, but I wouldn’t say he enjoyed the work for its own sake. Career development wasn’t particularly important to him unless it came with a raise. What’s your feeling about it? There are plenty of well-paying jobs that don’t require a secondary education. (Sales jobs can be very lucrative and many don’t require a degree. You can get a real estate agent license without one as well, and if you’re entrepreneurially inclined, small-business ownership is a big source of wealth for a lot of people.)
If you had to name three things you’d value most in a job right now, what are they, and in what order? Is income first? Is it important to you to do something you’re naturally good at? Do you need to truly enjoy the work? Is status important to you? Working with people you like? Being able to advance quickly? Understanding your longer-term needs and wants should help you make a decision.
I don’t think you necessarily have to go back to school, but education certainly gives you more options, since it’s a minimum requirement for a lot of career paths. It’s also still a big mechanism for class mobility in the U.S., and not just because it gives you access to higher-paying jobs. It also potentially gives you access to other people in your field, a network of classmates, and a body of specialized knowledge. So think about how you personally define “middle class.” Is it just about income? These are all questions you need to answer to determine what your best path is.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I own a house in Arizona. I was lucky enough to buy it before the housing market blew up, so I don’t owe too much on the house and could likely resell it for at least double what I owe on it. My girlfriend and I want a bigger house, so we discussed either selling this one and buying a bigger house or renting out this house and buying a second house. The problem is that this state is in a massive, decadeslong drought. Water cutbacks are starting for farms this year and will likely hit regular cities in the next few years, barring some miraculous wet winters (but not likely due to climate change). The thought of owning one house in a dust bowl is concerning enough, but two would be insane. Especially when you consider mortgages are 15- to 30-year loans, and I have no idea about the water situation in the next five years.
I am at a loss for what to do. Moving to another state might be possible to get the bigger house, but we would need to have us both find new jobs, and we both have aging parents, and we are their only caretakers if something happens. I still have updates that needs to be done on the current house, but I am not sure if it is worth investing more money in it if we may just sell it. What do I do?
—Dry Housing Market
Dear Dry Housing Market,
I think it’s increasingly common that people take climate change into consideration when thinking about long-term real estate decisions, and understandably so. For some people who plan to pass a house along to any children they have, it’s particularly important.
It’s also a privilege to even consider moving out of an area because climate conditions may worsen. We live in a country where most people can’t afford to do that. If you can, you probably have a lot of options.
I can’t tell from your letter how you feel about living in Arizona. Needing to stay there for family reasons is perfectly valid, but would you stay otherwise? Whether the dust bowl is dustier in 30 years is a consideration, but it’s not the only one, because real estate is not the only variable that determines your quality of life. If you’re ambivalent about staying, it may make sense to keep the house you already have in case you need to take care of your parents, while investing in a new property somewhere else and thinking about what you want in the longer term.
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