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 partner and I are in our late 30s and have been together for a year. As we begin to talk about the future—living together, marriage, etc.—I am starting to think about our financial life, and I have some deep concerns. My partner has significant college debt, as well as a new car they are paying off on a zero-interest loan. They currently earn very little, as they are completing an education program (for which they took on a small amount of additional debt). They have no savings and no family they can turn to for financial assistance of any kind. The field they are studying to enter has significant potential in terms of job opportunities and earnings, and they are on track to complete this course by next summer. However, even if they land a job in their field immediately upon finishing the program, it will realistically take five to 10 years or more of concerted effort to repay their debt.
If I was a high earner, this wouldn’t bother me and I would happily contribute to their debt repayment, but I have a chronic illness which makes it difficult for me to pursue a high-earning career. I have a supportive family and was able to keep my college debt manageable (it is now nearly paid off), have no other debt, and have some very modest savings which I will be able to increase slowly but steadily so long as nothing else rocks the boat. I don’t think my salary or my savings are enough to take on my partner’s debt burden comfortably, however.
I love my partner and don’t want to end things over this at all. How can we move forward responsibly together while also taking care of ourselves? I am really scared about what our future might look like, financially. Is it possible to live together or get married (here, legally, they are essentially the same thing) without me sacrificing my tiny financial cushion? Will we ever be able to retire comfortably? I also want to purchase a home in the next five years—will his debt prevent that from being possible?
—Starting to Have Cold Feet
Dear Cold Feet,
There’s no rule that says you have to combine your assets—or your debt—if you choose to make a long-term commitment to your significant other. If your partner’s debt is a deal-breaker for you, you should probably consider the possibility that there are some deeper issues. If you were married and both perfectly secure financially, one of you could have serious financial issues somewhere down the road, and this would be the sort of thing you’d have to navigate. Unforeseen medical bills alone could create a debt problem for any potential partner who’s not top-tier wealthy.
I don’t say that to heighten your anxiety about marriage, but to highlight what the stakes are. And a debt repayment that takes five to 10 years might be one of the smaller challenges in the long term. Personally, I think if your decision is “partner” versus “tiny financial cushion” and you are at all inclined to opt for the latter, you’re not really ready to marry this person.
If I’m wrong about that, and you really want to marry, you can always keep your finances separate. Your partner’s money is their money; yours is yours. And the same goes for your debt. But I think you have a lot more to think about here. And you’ve only been together for a year, so you might want to just take more time to think about what you want and work through potential options together.
Dear Pay Dirt,
We have young children (under 8) and they receive a few dollars a week for allowance. We have gotten more sporadic about it during the pandemic, as we stopped using as much cash and didn’t have small bills available. I would like to open savings accounts for the kids, which could then receive automatic transfers. My wife thinks it would be better to stick with the physical money, to teach the concept of saving for things in a more hands-on way. I think banking is basically digital for most purposes now anyway, so why not get the kids into the system they will likely be using as adults? Would going cashless screw up their money sense?
—It’s Just One More App
Dear One More App,
It really depends on your children and how capable they are of understanding abstract rewards, and that is probably a function of where they are developmentally. It wouldn’t hurt to experiment with bank accounts and see if showing the kids their balances produces the same level of motivation as cold hard cash. Generally, children (especially those on the younger side of “under 8”) like more tangible things, but for what it’s worth, my husband and I just opened an account for our 6-year-old and it did make him curious about how money works. But he also gets tangible rewards for doing chores (in his case, Fortnite skins, at least until he inevitably gets bored with Fortnite). It may also be the case that what works for one child of a given age might not work for the other. I think you just have to try it and see which motivates them more.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am a self-made individual who has made a nice life for myself and my family without much family help. I was left to raise my four children alone, without family help or assistance. I have chosen to be far more hands-on and provide more assistance (financial, emotional, and child care help) to my children and grandchildren. I do this with a loving heart and because I want to provide what I so desperately needed and wanted in my own life.
Now my parents have come back into my life and want me to take care of them in their older age. I feel resentful and do not want to put my own dreams aside to care for people who were not there for me. How do I say this without completely annihilating this recently rekindled relationship? How do you tell people that you can’t really make up for lost time?
—Now You’re Here?
Dear Now You’re Here,
This sort of situation is always tough to navigate. I think you have to be direct and honest with your parents, while making it clear that you value the rekindled relationship. You need to be prepared for the fact that they may feel you owe them help as a caretaker simply because you’re their child, and may not react well to any boundaries you set.
But it’s your right to set those boundaries, and if their rekindled interest in you is entirely contingent upon you playing the role of caretaker, it’s going to be hard for you to have a real relationship anyway. If they do value your relationship, it’s worth it to help them understand how you feel about the situation and about the fact that they were not around when you needed support. You also have other commitments to your children and grandchildren, and they may not understand the scope of that, so you should catch them up on what they missed.
You may decide after those conversations that you do want to help them in some way—or not! Either way, you and your parents will be sure that your continuing relationship isn’t built on resentment and misaligned expectations.
Dear Pay Dirt,
When my two children were born, my husband’s parents set aside substantial sums in savings accounts intended to help pay for their college education. We supplemented this with our savings, and now each account grew to roughly $250,000, enough to pay for the absurdly rising cost of college.
My daughter is in her sophomore year at Brown, and her fund will likely be eaten up by the time she graduates. My younger son has never really liked school—he’s bright but very independent—and has decided recently that, rather than college, he’d rather do a vocational/apprenticeship program that trains him to code software. He plans to enter the workforce from there.
I’ll admit to being a bit apprehensive at first—I came from a generation where college was the sure ticket to stability and this felt risky to me—but he did his research, identified a sound program, and is good with computers, so I’ve told him I support it wholeheartedly and will of course pay for the program, which costs a fraction of college.
He’s since asked if the remainder of what’s in his college savings account can be passed on to him—he knows that such a large amount would grow and make a very fine retirement savings. I’m torn. Of course it’s a fair request, but I worry that his sister would feel penalized if he starts out adulthood with a massive nest egg and she—despite having worked as hard or harder—starts empty-handed. On the other hand, I don’t want him to feel punished for choosing a nontraditional path.
My instinct is to say that I will pay for both their postsecondary paths, whatever they choose, and divide the rest evenly between them. But I can’t make a final decision. My husband and his parents passed away a few years ago, so I can’t consult them as to their wishes.
—Two Birds, One Stone?
Dear Two Birds,
There’s no right answer here, but I think the best path would be dependent on what sort of expectations you set with your children, with regard to whether the accounts were abstractly there to “pay for college” or whether they were intended to financially support them individually.
Since it seems like they were set up individually, I don’t think your son’s request is unreasonable. If your daughter wanted to go a different route, to take advantage of the money in her fund, she’s only a sophomore and there are more affordable schools than Brown. I think giving them agency over their own decisions about how to use the money in their accounts is probably healthy for both of them.
If you choose to go this route, I would make it clear to both of them right now that they are choosing what to do with the money. Your daughter has time to change course, if that would make a difference for her, and if not, her college is paid for and she’ll leave without student debt and with a prestigious degree that will give her an advantage when she looks for a job. Your son’s path is riskier in many ways, but could also have big rewards. Both are legitimate choices, but they don’t carry the same risk.
For what it’s worth, I went your daughter’s route for college and can’t imagine being resentful if one of my siblings chose to use college money to do something besides college. I would not think of it as a penalty for taking the safer route, especially if I knew I had the same option to take an alternative path and leave with money in the bank.
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My father was diagnosed with cancer last year. His illness seems to be seriously progressing, and I don’t know how much time he has left. I live across the country, and I’m honestly not sure if I want to visit him while I have the chance. He was a workaholic who was never around when I was really young. When I was a teenager, all he ever did was hit on my friends and complain about his relationship with my mom. And as an adult he only talks to me in order to lecture me about how awful every single life choice I’ve ever made is. I dread every interaction with him. I guess I’m not really asking if it’s OK not to visit an estranged dying relative—I’m not going to make myself do this if I can’t handle it. But if I decide not to, how can I deal with the inevitable criticism I’m going to get for my decision?