Pay Dirt

I’m So Bitter Over What the Pandemic Did to My Finances

Is it just me, or did everyone else make out like a bandit?

A cook in a restaurant kitchen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus 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,

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. Keeping that second job turned out to be a lucky choice, because when I was furloughed from job No. 1 in March (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 the paycheck from 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 2020.

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Now I’m finally looking at getting out of my rental again and the housing market has exploded. The very same condo I was eyeing last February when it was at $130K just sold again for $170K. 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 (while 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 that were getting expanded unemployment benefits are driving the market up. No one I try to talk to about this sees my issues. Am I just being greedy, or do I have a point?

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—It All Feels So Unfair

Dear So Unfair, 

A lot of people had their dreams shattered in 2020. I was definitely one of them, and so were you. Just because your situation isn’t the same as your more-hard-hit co-workers’ doesn’t mean that you aren’t grieving the loss of your income, or the loss of your dream of homeownership. Toxic positivity is very real in the United States and inspires a lot of people to say that no matter what their life is like, they should be happy. You should be happy you have that new job, despite your hours being ridiculous. You should be happy you have a family, despite your child having nervous breakdowns every day. But you can be happy and grateful, yet still acknowledge the suck in a situation.

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It’s also normal to be resentful, as someone who wasn’t able to take part in pandemic unemployment benefits, because that was unfair. But I highly doubt the ones who collected expanded benefits are the ones driving up the market where you live. You and I both know that there is a lot that goes into buying a house. And the same goes for the housing market. There is no supply, and when there is no supply yet an increase in demand, whatever inventory on hand is going to shoot up in price. Besides low supply, we are currently in a market where interest rates on mortgages are at a record low. This encourages people to get out of their current mortgage payment and get into one with a lower interest rate, for the same price they were already paying.

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You’re not being greedy, but maybe your friends are not ones to hear about your personal finance dilemmas, because they aren’t in the same situation as you. That’s more than OK, because there is a huge personal finance community online, and you can find the support you need there. Some of my favorite community builders in the personal finance space are Debt Free Guys, the College Investor, and Rich & Regular.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My husband of 30 years, a lawyer, brought a small number of stocks and bonds into the marriage that his parents bought him when he was a kid. I didn’t have anything like that, but I’ve earned a good income over the years as a writer, including a large windfall when one of my books got made into a movie. I also did the lion’s share of housework and child rearing.

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Three years ago, my husband was unemployed for two years. During this period, we spent down most of our accrued savings from my windfall and ran up quite a bit of credit card debt. Now, he’s working again, and I’m working part-time as well as writing, and we’re doing OK, but we still have the debt.

Since our younger daughter is about to finish college, I asked my husband about selling his savings bonds that are now worth around $5,400. They’re not earning interest anymore, and there would be tax consequences to selling them, consequences that might be avoided by selling them for our daughter’s “education.” He said, if anything, he wanted to put them into an account so they could go back to earning interest.

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I understand holding onto the stocks. But the bonds aren’t accruing interest, and our debt is. His siblings both sold off these assets decades ago. I don’t know whether he wants to hold onto them for sentimental reasons, or because they’re “premarital assets” that he doesn’t want to share with me, but either way, it’s annoying.

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I should add that, even though my parents didn’t buy me any stocks (and I sold my savings bonds for college), over the years, they’ve been very generous to us and our children, and recently gave us $40,000 for a new roof. My husband is not ungenerous in many other aspects of his life (he gives good gifts, etc.), but he can be cheap in weird ways, and this is one of them.

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I feel like he should photocopy the bonds and then cash them out. Am I wrong? I guess the alternative is to wait until he dies, when I will, once again, be able to cash them out, tax-free. But I would be very sad.

—He’s Too Bonded to His Bonds

Dear Too Bonded, 

Have you ever asked your husband flat out why he doesn’t want to cash out these bonds? I have a hunch it has nothing to do with not wanting you to not have access to a premarital asset, but instead more of a security thing. For example, he might have been thinking in his head, “OK, this is a crappy situation and when this cash runs out, I’ll have these bonds to cash in to help with everything.” So now that the sky isn’t falling per se, he sees no reason to cash them in. Yes, it is annoying, but I don’t think it has anything to do with you, and everything to do with him.

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I also think you’re reaching for straws in finding ways to justify your feeling that he should cash them in. The fact that his siblings have cashed theirs in, while he hasn’t, is irrelevant. So is the fact that you have generous parents who are funding aspects of your life. I respect the fact that you have done the majority of the work in the home and with the children. But I’ll say this gently: Cashing in those bonds simply wouldn’t provide that big of a payday—not such a big one that his failure to do so should provoke the kind of reckoning you’ve laid out in your letter. You sound resentful about other areas in your marriage; you may benefit from seeing a couples therapist to help sort this out. A professional can also help you communicate your frustrations about the bonds, and explore what’s going on underneath that feeling. You and your husband can decide where to go from there.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My grandparents began a health decline fairly close together, as they were both in their 90s. My mother and her sister each lived within a few miles of their parents and shared caretaking through the end of their lives, but my aunt decided to move in with them a few months before my grandfather’s first stroke.

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My grandparents both died within a year of each other. Their will dictated an even split of assets between my mother and my aunt, but a year after their death, my aunt was not budging on selling the house. My mom continued to ask about it, but she continued to deflect. We eventually looked into it and discovered that she had the ownership of the house transferred into her name as soon as she had moved in with them—before either of them had died, but after my grandfather’s stroke.

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When confronted, she said this was what she “told our father was easiest for everyone.” We believe he let it happen as he trusted her judgment, had just suffered a stroke, and never would have thought she’d have stolen the house from the family after the fact.

It’s now been six years and my mother rarely speaks with her sister because of how hurt she was by her actions. My mother would have been fine with a cash payout and letting her sister continue to live there, but she just wants something, as she has received nothing from her parents’ wishes at all.

She doesn’t have the money for an attorney, so we’ve just let it be, but she is older now and looking at retirement and is gravely hurt that she has lost this inheritance money. It makes her sick to think about what her parents would think about how she is being treated. We don’t even believe that my aunt has my mom as a beneficiary for anything, and feel like the house is a lost cause (as well as her sister!). Is there any legal recourse here at all?

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—My Mom’s Sister Broke Her Heart

Dear Broken Heart, 

I am so sorry for what happened to your mom, and I’m sorry for you too. It’s hard watching a parent struggle, especially due to a family betrayal. You’re probably right in thinking that you mom’s sister does not have her listed as a beneficiary on anything. At least anything important. And I’m afraid I might not have good news. When an elderly person who is not of sound mind or body is manipulated into changing their will, it’s called undue influence. So your aunt having your grandpa change his will after a stroke could be considered undue influence, and would be grounds to being able to contest a will.

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But the issue isn’t whether the will could be contested; the issue is what statute of limitations your state has put in place.  Every state has a different statute of limitations, so while one person can contest a will years after, another may only have several months. You can use a tool like Nolo to find a probate attorney who can offer a consultation, then go from there. Good luck.

Dear Pay Dirt,

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My parents are in their late 60s, and still work, though my dad is broke and in thousands of dollars of debt because of various failed or failing business ventures. The current one has been “getting up and running” for 15 years. He takes breaks between contracts to pour what he’s saved from work into it. Meanwhile, Mom pays all the bills, and then my siblings and I bail him and my mom out, once the money runs out and he needs to start working again. My mom has some money, but I don’t know how much; I do know she’s banking on selling their house and going to live somewhere cheaper in a couple years. In the event of his passing, I’m assuming my mom would inherit his debt.

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I am livid with him on three counts: One, refusing to buy life insurance. Both my dad’s work and his failing, money-sucking side project require lots of travel locally and internationally. He’s walked away from rollover accidents multiple times. He needs to “cut costs,” according to him. He got one insurance plan that was affordable two years ago, but has since let it lapse.

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Second, I am now back at home and regularly paying rent, which I feel he views as permission for him to leave and focus on his project. Recently, I mentioned getting a place of my own, in an effort to get him to realize that he’s leaving Mom in the lurch. He said I should see my staying here as an investment because my mom “will give me some of the equity when she sells,” a plan that my mom and I have never discussed.

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Third, his health is failing, and soon he will be forced to stop working, at which point my sister and I will be responsible for caring for him. I’m in my 30s and single, and feeling trapped, as I would love to leave and be on my own but the pandemic made it really difficult because of my mental health. He’s stubborn to the point of belligerence when my sister or I mention insurance or abandoning this money pit of a project, so I’ve stopped.

Do you have any advice? My goal is to get him to focus on debt repayment, a retirement savings plan, and health insurance. I’m not looking forward to providing and caring for them financially because I’m so angry about this. I feel selfish because we are immigrants and they worked hard to get us to the United States, and I have a decent income and better opportunities because of it, but they’ve made some bad decisions and refuse to course correct.

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—My Parents Are So Irresponsible

Dear So Irresponsible, 

It’s so hard as a second-generation immigrant to answer this, but know you are not alone. In many cultures, we are expected to take our parents on once they get older. Multigenerational housing can have many benefits, and feel very fulfilling when done correctly. But when you are forced to care for a loved one because they were reckless, it’s a harder pill to swallow. You can also only do so much because your dad will do what he wants to do, regardless of what you suggest. So right now, you need to focus on yourself and what you’re going to do about it, along with what boundaries you are going to draw up to protect yourself.

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First, decide if you are really going to take care of your parents. There is no right or wrong answer; you just need to get clear on if this is something you actually want to prepare for. If you are, then discuss with your mother if you are going to be a beneficiary on the house, or if she would like to sell and move elsewhere. Discuss with your siblings who would feel comfortable with caretaking, should it be needed. If your father will consent to it, take out a life insurance policy on him, with you as a beneficiary. You’ll take on the monthly payment, but this is one less thing you’ll have to harp on him about, while making sure the money would be there for your mom if he were to die sooner rather than later. Help your mom figure out what debt she would inherit in that eventuality, and figure out an exit strategy.

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If you do not want to take on this responsibility, then now is the time to move out. Establish a life outside of your parents’ home and make sure your family knows that you will not be responsible for your parents by yourself, as this needs to be a family effort. You also need to make sure your mom knows you will be able to help her if she needs it, but you will no longer be bailing your parents out. If you’re continuously enabling your father, he will continue to take advantage, so now is the time to put a stop to it and control what you can. That’s yourself, and what you’re willing to put up with.

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—Athena

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