Pay Dirt

I’m Really Concerned About My Daughter’s Strange Financial Arrangement With Her Boyfriend

I can’t help but think their plan will end in trouble.

A man holding noodles with chopsticks over a Chinese takeout container
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,

Our daughter (26) and her boyfriend (26) have decided to move in together, but some thorny issues regarding money have come up, and guidance (for all of us) would be helpful. Firstly, neither have lived outside their parents’ homes before, and have limited financial knowledge in terms of the realistic costs of running a household. Secondly, she is in a fairly low-paying job at present, while he earns about three times her salary in a trade position. He won’t talk about money, and she is reluctant to tackle him on it, so for her sake we did a rough calculation of monthly costs—rent, utilities, phone plans, food, insurance (both cars), gas, etc., to illustrate how much it would take for them to live together. Split down the middle, she would not be able to maintain the arrangement for long.

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My husband and I maintained separate bank accounts when we started living together in our very early 20s, but eventually merged our finances—it was always understood that our expenses were shared and so was our income to service our needs. I should mention that throughout our marriage there have been times when we each had turns being the major earner—no resentment, no tabs.

This is obviously not our daughter’s situation, so our question is this: When earnings are so disparate, what is a fair way to calculate each person’s financial load so that she isn’t left struggling, and he doesn’t grow resentful about having to pay “more”?

—Parents With Misgivings

Dear Parents,

This is really an issue that has to be worked out between your daughter and her boyfriend, because even in a roommate situation, people have different ways of dealing with income disparities and there are no right answers. They have to do what’s best for them and their relationship, and that could be splitting expenses evenly so they contribute equally to the household, or it could be a pro rata situation where each pays an income-adjusted portion. They need to decide what makes them both comfortable before they start looking for a place, and they also need to be aware that their respective income situations could be reversed at some point if they stay together—a turn of events you have already experienced.

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But regardless, they are 26 and not minors, so this really needs to be your daughter’s problem to work out. Helping her think about what their costs are going to be is helpful, but she has to make the decision to talk to her boyfriend about all of this on her own. You can give her some financial advice, but you can’t manage the relationship, and this is very much a relationship issue and not just a math problem.

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You also mention that neither of them has lived outside of their parents’ homes before, which is a little unusual for 26. But if they can’t afford to live together in a rental, it’s doubtful that they can afford to live separately outside of your homes. If this doesn’t work for them financially, what’s your daughter’s long-term plan for living independently? That also seems like an issue that needs to be addressed, and that issue is really about your relationship, not her relationship with her boyfriend. She needs to talk to her boyfriend and decide what they both agree is fair in terms of divvying up expenses, and you need to talk to her about what her plan B is, if moving in with her boyfriend isn’t an option.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

My dad died this summer, leaving my sister and me a modest inheritance of his retirement savings and life insurance, that he specified in his will be split 50-50 (it amounted to about $80K each). He had given us money some years before he died—me to help save a business I had, and her to buy a car and pay off some debt.

I don’t live in my hometown anymore, so she has been great at taking care of things and wrapping up his estate and possessions (I helped some when I could go back home). She also cared for him while he was alive and up to his death, and she was amazing during that ordeal.

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She recently sent me a text that she was closing his final bank account (about $12K), and that I owed her $9,000, because he gave me more than her while he was alive. I was really taken aback by that. It’s the first time we’ve discussed that. My dad and I had discussed paying him back the money he sent me ($70,000), but the business failed, and he understood I wasn’t in a position to do that.

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What do I do? I don’t think I owe her money, but she has launched into a bunch of character assassination and saying awful things because I disagree. Am I obligated to pay her back?

—Blindsided by This

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Dear Blindsided,

You don’t owe her anything. I’m floored at how many letters we get from people who invoice (either informally or literally) their siblings for things they didn’t agree to pay for, once inheritance issues are closed out. If she feels that your dad should have given her more while he was alive, it’s not your job to compensate for that. And the will explicitly states that the inheritance be split 50-50—not that your lifetime allocation be 50-50, and that it’s your responsibility to remedy any imbalances.

So legally, she is obligated to give you half of that $12,000, and you can take her to court to get it if you want. But if you’d prefer to avoid the conflict, that’s understandable too. Is it worth letting her have the money just to avoid an all-out war over this, which it sounds like your sister is prepared to wage? That’s a personal decision you have to make, but she is absolutely wrong about what you owe her.

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If she was unhappy about what you got when your dad was still alive, she should have taken it up with him when he was still around to discuss it. It’s not OK for her to drop this on you when he’s not around to object to what is obviously a violation of what he stated he wanted in his will.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My spending habits are hard to categorize. I’m sometimes frugal and sometimes a splurger, depending on the situation. The only thing is I hate splurging when I don’t want to. This has come up recently with my new boyfriend. He loves to spend a lot of money on takeout. I don’t. I hate cooking, but I like getting the most bang out of my buck when I eat out, unless there is something I really, really like on the menu. I’d prefer just to get a main course, and then if I want an appetizer or more food, it would be something I bought from the store. My boyfriend really likes taking care of me, and that sometimes means he orders extra food.

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The problem is we’ve started trading off who pays, and I don’t want to pay a ton for all the extra food he wants. This last time we picked up a to-go order, I was driving home and he had to order. He ordered a bunch of food, including an entire meal of fried rice (which I think is an absolutely idiotically overpriced dish) as a leftover. I’m fine with having leftovers from a meal, but not an entire dish.

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This type of frugality just seems absolutely ridiculous when I say it out loud. We’re not going out right now, but we knew each other before the pandemic and he knows I’ve had no trouble in the past spending a ton of money at the bar and I still don’t. I just worry that financially I am somehow a minefield and telling him this is just going to be so confusing. On top of it, this isn’t just a preference (it always has been), it’s a necessity because of my current financial situation, and frankly, he doesn’t make a ton of money, so I don’t know how this isn’t an issue for him either.

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I just feel like an overbearing girlfriend by saying “Hey, I don’t want us to spend a ton of money eating out.” Am I overthinking this? Do I just need to be open about this? How do I say this without making him feel bad about how he likes to spend his money?

—Am I Being a Weirdo?

Dear Am I Being a Weirdo,

Part of the reason this column exists is because people have a hard time talking about money, but everyone needs to be comfortable doing it. I understand your anxiety about discussing it because you don’t want to be perceived as cheap or arbitrary in your logic by someone you love.

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But it sounds as if you’re living together, and when you’re cohabitating, I think money conversations are necessary. (And this would be true even if he was just your roommate and you were sharing food expenses.)

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I would begin the conversation by saying that you realize your spending might sometimes seem random, but there are just certain types of expenses that make you anxious, and you’d like to find a way to handle the question of food expenses in a way that doesn’t make him feel deprived, and doesn’t make you feel like you’re wasting money on food you don’t need or want. There are a lot of different potential solutions. One is that you create a joint food budget and stick to it. Another is that you pick up individual tabs in restaurants. Yet another is that you plan, at the beginning of the week, to figure out how much you want to spend and where. Regardless, the point is to come to some agreement about what you both feel comfortable spending.

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This also requires that you be empathetic to his position. Even if your boyfriend doesn’t make a lot of money, it could be that not having to think too much about buying food, specifically, is what makes him feel secure and comfortable. I had some food insecurity my freshman year of college and, perhaps as a result, I’m more likely to spend on extra food than anything else, now that I’m relatively stable. Of course, your boyfriend may just not be thinking about the issue very much, but people’s spending priorities are often shaped by their history of feeling financially secure or not. And he may be forgoing expenses in other areas because food is important to him.

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But you won’t know either way, unless you talk about it. You both need to be open about your anxieties around the issue so you understand and can sympathize with each other’s spending habits and can come to some compromise.

Dear Pay Dirt,

Hello! I am married and live with my husband. I have an adult sibling with disabilities who will need lifelong assistance. As my parents age, they are asking us to take on more of these responsibilities. We have floated the idea of combining households with my brother to make this easier on all of us. We currently own our own home, and my brother lives independently with a daily visit from an aide and a weekly visit from my parents for groceries and small chores.

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My brother has a settlement from his injuries, but I am uncertain how much of his expenses come from that and how much are covered by my parents. What are some of the financial questions all of us should be asking? Is there any special financing available for people retrofitting a house to be accessible or building an accessible home?

—Change Is Coming

Dear Change Is Coming,

Without knowing your specifics, I can’t make any granular recommendations, but you need to make sure you understand what your brother’s finances look like now and what your parents’ current contributions are. Do they have a trust set up for him, with payouts, or are they giving him money ad hoc? How is the settlement structured? Was it a one-time payment, or is it tiered, or administered through a specific legal entity? Until you have total transparency into what your brother’s savings and income look like, you won’t know whether combining your assets makes sense. (This is also not something you should determine without the advice of your accountant and ideally an estate lawyer.) You should also be aware of whether your brother may lose any of the benefits he’s receiving now if you combine households.

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There are a few grant programs available for adapting a home for a disabled resident. They mostly target low-income people, and there are also special programs for veterans and Native Americans.

If you don’t fit those categories, you may still qualify for state programs, and you can contact the relevant state office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to learn about the ones specific to your state. There are also some potential tax deductions you can take for home accessibility modifications, and you should consult your accountant about what is and isn’t eligible. (These would generally be deducted under medical expenses.) There are nonprofits and community groups that help subsidize these things locally, and some organizations that provide low-interest loans to disabled people specifically for assistive technology and home modifications.

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It may also be helpful for you to join a support group for families of disabled adults or a caregiver support group. There are plenty of people out there who’ve already done what you’re contemplating, and may be able to point you to resources that might not be so obvious. The support you’re going to need, if you take responsibility for your brother’s longer-term care, won’t just be financial. They’ve been there before and can help.

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—Elizabeth

More Advice From Slate

In my family, you have to be able to dish it out and take it. Good-natured ribbing about the things you’ve done, large and small, flies around the room, and the measure of how much we like you is how much we tease you. No matter how much I tell that to my current boyfriend, he doesn’t get it. He takes my family’s barbs as personal. If he dished it out in return, they’d respect him for it. Instead, he politely sits there, smiles uncomfortably, and waits for it to end. My family winds up not knowing if he likes us or not. Does his discomfort mean that we should stop teasing him altogether? If so, I have no idea what he’ll do at any of our family gatherings.

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