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 wife is bad with money. If we have money in our bank account, she will spend it. We have a shared account for bills and separate personal accounts, but when she has spent the money in her personal account she will just switch over to the shared account. I end up using my personal account for bills frequently.
We’ve talked about this endlessly, we’ve looked at how much money we’re spending, we’ve done budgets, but she just doesn’t stick to it, and my personality does not lend itself to enforcement. I make more money, so I’ve never wanted to feel like I’m holding that over her.
It’s not even big things, just an endless stream of stuff, all of which she justifies individually (“it’s only $25,” “I got rain boots for when the kids grow out of theirs”)—nothing unreasonable, but it’s so constant that we never have any money saved or pay off debts. After six years, I’m at the end of my rope with being financially insecure, even while we should have enough money!
This year, the kids finally started public school, but immediately all the money we should have been saving on day care went to Christmas presents. This weekend, she had a trip planned, and I had to give her our credit card because she spent all the money in her account, and I paid rent from our shared account. At this point, I think she just needs to be cut off from access to our shared account, but then when she is out of money, how am I supposed to say “Sorry, no money till payday”?
I recently found out her childhood was financially insecure, in spite of both parents having professional jobs, because her mom spent all of their money, even borrowing from retirement accounts. My wife’s habits clearly have psychological causes. But she just doesn’t see this as the same thing, because it’s not on the same scale. She’ll admit “I’m not good with money” in the abstract, but when I’m upset at us being in the red again, it’s always “Well, we needed XYZ.” What should I do?
—But Honey, It Was on Sale!
Dear On Sale,
I hear your frustration; it’s valid. I’d be at my wits’ end too if my spouse was blowing through our cash. However, I don’t think your wife is “bad with money.” I think your wife has a shopping addiction.
Symptoms of being a shopaholic (a term that sounds like a joke, but isn’t) can include spending outside your means, preoccupation with shopping, shopping while compromising your family’s stability, and feeling negative emotions around spending money. You write that she doesn’t see herself as bad like her mother, because she isn’t cashing in retirement accounts. But I have a feeling it’s only a matter of time before she gets there. So before that happens, you need to stop the financial bleeding and get her help. It’s going to be a lot of extra work at first, but it’s your family, so I know you’re up to the challenge.
You need to cut her off from your joint account. She can still keep her personal account, but from now on, you will be in charge of all bills. If the kids need something, you will need to purchase it if she cannot. But you are no longer giving her extra cash, and she is no longer using the joint account as her own personal windfall. She is going to get angry, and might even be manipulative about it, arguing that this is financial abuse. It’s not; it’s keeping her in her financial lane.
Next, you will be signing up for a couple of counseling sessions, specifically with a therapist who can help with addiction. The therapist can help you communicate with your wife to help her understand how damaging her addiction is. You shared above that you don’t have an enforcement personality—the therapist can also help you with setting boundaries you can stick to. This situation is going to get worse before it gets better, and this isn’t going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it. If you feel like it’s too much, at first, to handle, you can also go to therapy by yourself and get additional support.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I’m dealing with more of an inconvenience rather than problem. My wife and I are in our late 20s and are fairly well off, with no debt other than a mortgage for a home. We bought our home about three years ago, and while doing so I discovered that I had medical bills in collections. They are not my bills, and I never received the treatment in question; the facility was in my old hometown that is halfway across the country and I wasn’t there on the date of service.
I was able to get the bills removed, but now, every six or so months, they show up again with a new debt collector, and it always seems to happen right when credit scores matter, such as when we refinanced and again when we obtained another credit card. It’s not a ton of bills, about $750, but it’s getting annoying that I’m constantly getting on the phone and sending documents. My own research into the matter finds that it’s likely the medical facility may have found my info by searching for someone with a similar name. I don’t think it’s fraud or identity theft.
Is there any way to end the madness of spending hours on the phone removing this every few months? Would it be easier to just pay the damn bill?
—Not My Debt, Still My Monkeys
What you have on your hands is a case of health care fraud. One of the examples of health care fraud is when a company continuously pursues payment for medical services that were not provided. So while it may have started off as a case of “mistaken identity” and not fraud, it is legally considered fraud now. Do not pay the bill.
First, contact the state department of health where your hometown is located, and ask to be connected to the office that handles unethical medical billing practices and fraudulent claims. Once you’ve notified the state about what is going on, they can then open an investigation with the medical office, which should solve the matter.
If this does not seem to work, your next option would be to find a medical billing advocate. Medical billing advocates work with both health care providers and insurance companies on your behalf to solve fraudulent medical claims. They can be expensive, but the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals is a nonprofit that can help you find the right advocate for your budget. They can also assist in pointing you in the right direction if you need further information.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My 73-year-old mom had a stroke this summer and was told she could not live alone anymore. Rather than sending her to a nursing home, I offered to let her move in with me and my family.
I have a husband and two girls (8 and 9 years old). I modified my house to accommodate her needs and turned my formal dining room into a bedroom for her. I am currently working from home, so I am able to care for her. She can walk with a walker and use the bathroom on her own, but for everything else she needs my help. I am responsible for laundry, dressing her, preparing meals, supplying meds (crushed) three times a day, and many other things. I take time off of work to take her to doctor’s appointments, including physical therapy.
After a few months of therapy, she made great progress and started to get careless. She decided she could walk inside the house without anyone helping her on the last step, and she fell. She broke her hip and needed a full hip replacement. Again, I was the one to care for her, including keeping her at home for five days waiting for a hospital bed.
Now she is on her road to recovery again, and I told her it was time to schedule an appointment to get a trust done to handle all items once she passes. She told me her plan for distributing her money. She wants to give my sister (out of state and completely absent) 50 percent, me 25 percent, and my two girls 12.5 percent each. My sister does not have children. She said she wants to make it fair between me and my sister.
I am upset because I am the one caring for her. I am the one making all the sacrifices, and my sister barely even calls her. I cannot even leave for a weekend getaway without making arrangements for someone to care for my mom while I’m away. I feel totally trapped and it’s hard. I tried to get a caregiver for several hours a day and my mom complained until I canceled those services. Now, with the labor shortage, I cannot find anyone to help at home. Between holding a professional full-time job, raising two children, running a household primarily by myself and caring for a senior, I have no time to myself.
Now that I found out my mom’s plan for her trust, I am so resentful. I am actually thinking about finding a nice assisted living facility for her. What would you do? This is a very hard position to be in.
—Tired of Sacrificing
That was very nice of you to step up and be your mother’s caregiver after she fell ill. Stroke victims usually need a lot of additional care, which can be draining—as you have found to be true. It sounds like you have gone above and beyond what any child should do for their aging parents. There are limits, and it sounds like you’ve hit yours. You’ve altered your whole reality to take on your mom and this has caused a lot of stress on you. The estate split sounds like it was the final straw.
You are not a bad person for wanting your mother to be in assisted living. You have two children to care for, and you need to be the best person you can be to raise them. This includes making sure your own needs are met and you aren’t in a permanent state of exhaustion trying to balance everything. An assisted living home has trained professionals with around-the-clock care that can better suit your mother’s ongoing needs.
Since you were the one to start the conversation about the trust, open that conversation back up and add that along with her trust, she needs to figure out what her next steps are in making sure she receives the ongoing medical care you currently provide. You can say that you understand why she felt the division of her estate was fair, but that she has not acknowledged the fact that you are financially supporting her without any financial help. Remind her that along with providing the financial support she needs, you have also been her caregiver, which has left you at a point where you are now exhausted, and now would be the time to find an assisted living facility.
The shitty part about all of this is she’s going to be hurt and will probably lash out at you, which might make you feel worse. As hard as it’s going to be, stand your ground and remind her that she has an option to go live with her other daughter if she does not want to go into a home. Caregiving is not meant to be a one-person job. I’m rooting for you.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I finished my three-year grad program in May 2021 and started working this summer. I make in the high five figures, and I love my job. I have about $65,000 in student loans, which are paused right now because of COVID (I don’t have to repay and they aren’t charging interest), but repayments restart in February 2022.
When they restart, the interest will mean I have to pay about $300/month just to keep the balance even—before I can think about paying down any principal. I also have a car I’m paying off (I have about four years left), but the interest on that is lower than market rate. I rent my apartment. I have about one month’s worth of expenses in an emergency fund at this point, and I know the typical goal is six months.
I absolutely see the value in having a solid savings and emergency fund, but here’s my hang-up: If I throw just about every spare bit of money I have (everything that’s not earmarked for rent, car, or minimal groceries, basically) at my student loans, there’s an alternate universe where I’m out from under ALL my student loans in three years or less. (Of course, I’d have essentially nothing in savings or emergency funds when the loans are gone.) If I make a conscious effort to add some money to a “savings” or “emergency” fund each month, the time frame for loan payoff just drags on and the interest is brutal.
I have no idea how to weigh less debt now versus more savings now. Is an aggressive payoff of loans that leaves me with no savings worth it?
—I Would Feel So Free
I don’t think an aggressive debt payoff that leaves you with no savings is ever worth it. A lack of savings can cause you to go deeper into debt if a problem arises, which would keep the current cycle going. It can also keep you from investing in your 401(k), which means you could miss out on compound interest and a possible match through your employer.
But debt can be emotionally draining, and you’re right. The longer you drag out your payments, the more money you’ll be paying overtime toward interest. So why not do a mixture of both? For every $200 you put toward debt, put $100 toward savings. Keep this going until you have what you feel is a comfortable amount saved for emergencies (you said six months, but even $10,000 is more than sufficient), then start throwing all of your extra money toward your debt. This allows you some wiggle room to pay for things as they come up, while still lessening the amount of interest you’ll be paying over time.
If you want to achieve your goals faster, you can always look into getting a side hustle. Even if you find one at $25 an hour and work four hours a week, you’ll have an extra $400 to put toward your debt. You can find tips and ideas at I Like To Dabble, which is a great website to check out for side hustling. You got this.
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I was walking with my 22-month-old, and while we were waiting for a traffic light to change I knelt down to the sidewalk and showed her an ant walking by. She tried to smush it with her hand, but I grabbed her arm away. Then she stomped it with her foot. Is my toddler a lunatic? Does she understand ants are alive? Does she understand that she is killing them? Where does the urge to smush and stomp come from?