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 ex-husband is getting out of prison in a few months, and I have agreed to let him live with me. He is unable to work due to mental health issues and will be applying for disability, which will take a couple years to complete. During that time, I will be covering all of his expenses, as he has no money, car, or family members to help him.
Once he gets approved for disability, he will get back pay, which could total more than $20,000. Part of me wants to allow him to keep that money so he can establish a life of his own. But part of me wants to take some of it to cover the support I will be providing him until he gets approved. I am pretty sure he will indeed be approved, but I’m not positive.
There is no easy way to calculate the exact amount I will be paying for his support. Do you think it would be fair to just split it half and half? He is not good at managing his money, but then again neither am I. I make six figures, no kids, a mortgage payment of only $900/month, yet I still live month-to-month because of extraordinarily high credit card debt. That money could help me pay down that debt. I want to be fair to him and to myself. He is willing to let me make this decision, and I just want to make the right one for both of us.
That’s extremely generous of you to be putting your ex-husband before yourself to help ensure he gets the proper treatment and can hopefully one day be self-sufficient. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking to be paid back some of the money you are fronting for his care, but the assumption that you will see that money via the disability funds makes me hesitate. Getting qualified for Supplemental Security Income benefits due to mental health can be extremely difficult, with a lot of red tape, so make sure his disability is covered and that you start a paper trail to support his claims of not being able to work due to his illness. As you note, this could take years, so you may need to look for other ways to lessen the financial tension while you wait for the approval. This article has an extensive amount of resources to help those looking to rehabilitate into society. I’d recommend reaching out to any from your state that you think could be helpful.
As for the amount you could ask him to cover, I would examine your grocery and utility bills and figure out the how much the costs increase once he’s living with you. Your mortgage is fixed, but your utilities and food bills are not, so those feel like a fair metric to use. I would also keep an eye on things that people forget about supplying, such as hygiene products, cleaning items, clothing, medications, and any medical appointments that have copays or other fees. Added together, I’d guess something like $500 a month would be sufficient, but you should adjust accordingly. You can always revisit this arrangement every month to make sure that both of you still feel comfortable with it so that way there is any animosity before it begins. You may also want to research tenant laws in your state before he moves in, so you know what your rights are should you need him to leave.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mother is 75, very sharp of mind, but has difficulty walking and has no retirement savings and no investments, assets, or property, and another year of debt consolidation payments. She spent all she had trying to get her books published and believed with all her heart and soul that this would make her rich. But it never happened. Now she’s too tired to work anymore, and her Social Security isn’t enough, and still won’t be after her debt is paid off.
My husband and I want to help her out, but it’s a tricky question of how. She doesn’t want to accept money. We have two teenagers and no room at home. The ideal solution would be for us to buy her a little place to live so she doesn’t have to pay rent, and her Social Security would handle the rest. We can pay cash, so borrowing isn’t an issue. She is the only one of our parents who is going to need help. Our problem is that we think it’s not a good time to buy, but I don’t want to make Mom wait much longer, because she’s exhausted. What do we do?
—Help Me Help Mom
Dear Help Me Help Mom,
You aren’t wrong to feel hesitant about purchasing in today’s market. But there are different types of senior citizen living accommodations that don’t have to involve you stalking homes on Zillow. She could live in a senior citizen living community, either independently or with assistance. This would allow your mom to maintain an active social life while being, for the most part, on her own, and it will also relieve some stress on you and your family. You can also look into senior apartment living—apartment complexes that are partly funded by the government for people 55 or over to reside there for a much cheaper rate than a regular unit. You could also rent her a first-floor apartment for a year while you figure out your next move. I’d recommend looking at options with your mom, then figuring out which one makes the most practical and financial sense to all of you. Good luck.
Dear Pay Dirt,
Both of my parents have passed, and my mother just recently. They wisely set up a family trust for their six children, and by the time their house is sold and taxes are paid, we should end up with nearly $150,000 each. So far, so good.
One of my sisters has been the stellar caregiver for both parents over the past 15 years as their health has declined. She’s a nurse and has been living five minutes away from the parents and has been at their beck and call for decades. I feel strongly that the other five of us should apportion some amount of what we will receive to the stellar sister. Even $5,000 from each of us would be an extra $25,000 for her.
How might I best bring this up with my siblings? My older brother, who is in charge of the trust’s finances, is a notorious tightwad and will probably not go along with the idea. I can tell them that I’m going to give money to Stellar Sister regardless of what they do, but that might create a division among us.
—All in the Family
Dear All in the Family,
Family inheritances are tricky, especially when your siblings feel like you are telling them what to do with their share of the pie and however insignificant that slice may be. That was a wonderful thing for your sister to do, but your family may see it only as compensation taken out of their pockets, or they may need the money more than you know. Perhaps they may not fully understand how much your sister did for your parents, or they may just be tightwads. So I think a letter would be the best way to initiate the conversation.
Send an email to your siblings, minus Stellar Sister, to share that you will be giving her $5,000 out of your own share and explain why you feel it’s the right thing for you to do. You can give examples of times she took on additional caregiver duties, and you can offer reasons why this took time away from her own family or career. You can state that you don’t expect anyone else to give her money but that you wanted to throw the option out there in case anyone else wanted to contribute. You can state that there won’t be any hard feelings if no one else pitches in, and hold yourself too that.
This way, you can share why you think she should get additional money, but you’re not attacking anyone who may feel differently than the way you do. If no one wants to share, that’s fine—you put the idea out there, and you’re showing your appreciation to your sister, and that’s what counts.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My girlfriend and I are in a serious, loving relationship. During the last few years, my career has had a couple of huge, lucky breaks, and hers has had long, unlucky droughts. Because of this, my income is reliably now orders of magnitude larger than hers, and during the pandemic I have shifted to paying for all of our shared expenses myself. My parents’ generation probably wouldn’t bat an eye at this, but she and I have no intention of having an old-fashioned dynamic where the man is the “breadwinner” and the woman feels like a “stay-at-home wife.”
I’m not sure what to do if the disparity is still so large once we start discussing marriage. I’m worried that if we go back to a system where we split everything by the same dollar amount, we will have to dramatically change our lifestyles to live on a shoestring budget, which neither of us wants. Should we talk about contributing a fixed percentage of each of our paychecks to our shared expenses, or should we try to acclimate ourselves to the idea that I’m the breadwinner for the two of us? I care deeply about minding both her savings and her self-confidence as her own person.
Dear Worried Boyfriend,
I think it’s amazing that you are sensitive to your girlfriend’s feelings and understand that this isn’t about you. A lot of people tie their income to their self-worth, and it’s good to remind her that she is still important and wise despite her current employment situation.
Since you make much more than she does, I’d recommend a fixed percentage of expenses instead of splitting everything in half. Say you make $100,000, and she made $60,000. Your total income would be $160,000. You’re making 63% of the total household earnings, and she is making the remaining 37%. So, when you split a bill, you should pay 63%, and she should pay 37%. You don’t have to do that for every expense—say, if you want to take on a greater share of rent so you can spring for the more spacious apartment, or if she would like to contribute more to retirement but doesn’t have anything left at the end of the month, so you pick up a bigger portion of the vacation bill. But it’s a place to start, and it keeps in mind her own savings goals while still enabling her to contribute to the household. You can even go a step further and open a joint account for your shared living expenses if that’s helpful.
At the end of the day, the best step forward is to talk openly with your girlfriend and ask her what feels comfortable for her. Maybe she’ll be eager to jump on board, or feel a completely different way, or have another idea how to approach this—but you won’t know unless you ask. Having an open conversation now can also help you tackle tougher conversations later. Good luck!
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My husband and I are not particularly well-off, but we are incredibly proud of our daughter, who has worked her butt off and gotten into our (excellent) state school as well as a handful of prestigious private colleges. She wants to go to one of the latter, and apart from a small amount of need-based financial aid, she’s looking at taking on a lot of student loan debt. The rest of the family thinks we should help pay for part of it by cashing out our 401(k). Truly, I do not love the idea of her leaving college with that kind of debt, but I’m extremely hesitant to put our savings on the line at this point in our lives.