Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
I need help to break a bad family pattern I’m in with my older brother Alan. He and I are both single adults in their late twenties who live independently from our parents. We both have decent jobs, with him making significantly more money working in a tech field.
Despite him being well set up in life, Alan contributes nothing to family holidays. He stays with me for free when he visits from out of town, doesn’t help my mother and me cook even though she asks, accepts presents but brings none, and generally has a full on case of revertigo whenever he visits. I would chalk that up to him just being inconsiderate, but he somehow manages to rise to occasion whenever his church or roommates need something.
I have tried various ways to survive the holidays. I used to give our parents gifts from “the both of us,” despite Alan contributing no emotional labor or even cash to help pay for anything. When that got annoying, I started telling him that I am doing this for a family event, and he should please make his own plan accordingly. Alan then tried to blame me on my mother’s birthday, in front of the entire family, for not planning a gift for him. I nearly punched him.
Part of the trouble is Alan seems to think we are exactly equal in life, so we should just revert to the dynamic we had as kids. Where I would plan everything, help out with tasks, and he would just sit on the couch on his phone. I don’t want to go back to how it was when we were kids. How do I start the next family visit off on a better foot?
—At Least Do The Dishes?
Dear Do the Dishes,
Alan is an adult, whether Alan behaves like one or not, and it’s not your responsibility to do these things for him. But you already know that, and now you just need to make it clear to Alan. You’re his sibling, not his parent, and the next time he’s responsible for things like family gifts or making holiday plans, tell him he’s on his own this year. If he fails to bring a gift or find a place to stay, no one will blame you.
If he’s inconsiderate about these things, no amount of lecturing him will make him change his tune. It also sounds like he’s been this way since you were kids, so I think it’s time to accept that Alan might just be a bit of a selfish person.
Alan should not prevent you from enjoying your holiday with your family, and he can only ruin it if you make your enjoyment contingent upon him behaving the way you, a considerate person, would. Concentrate instead on the time spent with your mom and enjoying the holiday for its own sake. If Alan wants to sit on the couch with his phone the whole time, it’s his loss, not yours.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mom has been divorced from my father for just under 20 years, but was never great with money even when they were together. I have two younger brothers and we are all extremely concerned about her in the future. She spends frivolously, and we’ve tried to discourage her—refusing to join in streaming services when she’s offered us a username, inviting her to eat at our homes instead of going out, asking her not to buy us Christmas or birthday presents. She still does all of these things. When she’s on her own, she eats out constantly, buys herself material things that bring her joy, and in general lives paycheck to paycheck. She has a home she’s paying a mortgage on, but it’s far too much house for her and has literal holes in the roof she’s never fixed. At this point, I hope she can get out of it for what she has left on the mortgage. About all she has going for her is they bought the house in the early 2000s when the prices were still reasonable.
We are all in our 30s, and at various states of settling down. We all worked hard to unlearn the money lessons we received from our parents, and we all have nest eggs and homes. However, we are all at various stages of being entangled with Mom’s finances. She doesn’t own her car—my little brother does, and she pays him to pay the car loan. Sometimes she can’t pay him for it or he has to call and remind her. She’s also not cared for it well, so he’d be lucky to get anything for it if he tried to sell it. Mom is now borrowing from us every so often, and I’m not sure she’s aware we know she’s cycling through us for money. We don’t want to keep loaning her money.
Mom will be inheriting about a million dollars from her parents when they die, and they are not in great shape so that could be soon. She has a pension and will continue to have health care after retirement at a very low cost. We want to help her structure her finances so she doesn’t end up trying to live with us one day. She’s refused all of our offers for help before and denies that there are any money problems—before borrowing again from one of us the next month. We would like to see her sell her house that is falling around her ears and help her find a condo. So where do you start with a parent that can’t admit she has a money problem?
–Mom Is In Denial
Dear Mom in Denial,
If history is any indication, your mom will ask one of you for money again, and probably soon. You should use the opportunity to get her to sit down with you and your siblings and make a plan for her finances. Tell your mom that you’re willing to help out, but you can’t keep just paying for things ad hoc. She needs to understand that this puts a burden on you and your siblings and makes you anxious about her future. Explain that this is as much about your peace of mind as hers, and she has a responsibility to avoid putting you in a position where you’re forced to worry about these things because she’s avoiding it.
In her mind, she may think that all of her spending is fine because she anticipates a large inheritance. She also may not have a realistic idea of how much she’s spending, and how easy it is to spend beyond her means. even if she anticipates a future windfall. She may need to see documentation of the rate at which she’s spending and what the house is worth for it all to sink in.
But the first step is getting her to the table to talk about it, and unfortunately, you may have to make any additional financial help from you or your brothers contingent upon her willingness to sit down with you and plan. In all likelihood, she’s avoiding the conversation in part because it creates some anxiety for her, either because she doesn’t want to think about the risk that she’s taking or she doesn’t want to be held accountable for it. So you should emphasize that this process will make everyone feel more secure about the future, and it will be a relief for her—and you—to have a plan. If she gets defensive, you may also want to suggest bringing in a professional financial advisor. Sometimes having a neutral third party in the room to facilitate these discussions helps to make the conversation feel less loaded and makes it clear that these discussions are about practical planning for the future, not blame.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have two grown kids. Their dad passed away when they were six and nine. I started receiving his Social Security for my kids. Back then, my mother heard I was receiving this money and was constantly asking for money. I just told her the extra money was going to a trust account for when the kids were grown. But in actuality, I had to use this money to raise the kids.
My mom told the kids about having a trust fund. Now that they are grown they want the money. I planned on saving money to repay them but I haven’t been able to.
How do I tell them there is no money? I’m so afraid of disappointing them. I don’t want them to think I stole the money.
–Sometimes, I Feel Desperate About It
Dear Sometimes I Feel Desperate,
I think you just have to be honest about it. Tell them that you used that money to raise them, and your mother misunderstood the implication of what you told her about using the money for their benefit. I think it’s also fair to tell them that your mother only knows about the money at all because she asked you for money regularly when they were young, and you didn’t have it to give her, because it was going into family expenses. Tell them you’re sorry they’re disappointed, but there was never anything resembling a trust fund in the cards. (Do they know what Social Security payments look like? They’re not exactly a windfall.)
In any event, inasmuch as you did anything wrong, it was in not setting appropriate expectations—both with your mom and the kids. Your mom was never entitled to your husband’s money, and you probably should have just said no when she asked for it, and told her then that you needed it to pay for your own family’s living expenses. But you can’t go back now; the best thing to do is just come clean.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband and I (40 years old) are happily child-free and work well-paid jobs (we now have a combined $225k income/year) with assets totaling around $800k. We max out retirement savings; until recently, we worked in public service positions with lower salaries. We live in a major metropolitan area.
My three married siblings have a total of seven children under six years old. Each family has $6 million+ in assets. In the past several years, my parents have started to gift thousands of dollars to each grandchild every year into college funds ($12k+/grandchild per year). Because of these gifts, my siblings have been able to instead divert their own money into new homes, cars, etc.
I have not received any such gifts because we do not have children. My parents are obviously free to do what they like with their money—it’s their money!! And I’m incredibly proud of the professional accomplishments of my siblings— they’ve worked hard!! But mentally/deep down, I am becoming unfairly resentful in a way that is unhealthy. I also find myself upset because my husband and I could certainly use the money for a home/car, and my parents are gifting money to my siblings who already have so much more. Obviously my husband and I are beyond lucky for what we have, and I hate that this is eating away at me.
Is there a way to have this conversation with my parents without sounding like a gold-digging, petulant child? I want to ask if this is their long-term estate plan, i.e.—Should I expect that their estate will not be divided equally between siblings? That way, I can start to process and learn to accept that fact before they’re gone. I’m scared this resentment will grow into anger towards my siblings later in life when this all needs to be sorted! Advice is greatly appreciated!
–In The Back Of My Mind
Dear In the Back Of My Mind,
Your situation isn’t unusual, if that’s any comfort. A lot of people who become grandparents want to provide for grandchildren and view it as a kind of longer-term investment in the next generation. They may assume that their adult children are already well taken care of, by virtue of being adults, and more so if their adult children are reasonably successful. (Additionally, there are many college savings programs that offer tax advantages, and $12,000 into such a program may have very different repercussions for them financially than an outright gift of $12,000 might.)
Nonetheless, I understand why you feel that you’re being neglected or penalized in some way for not having children. I don’t think you can take your parents to task for their decision to direct money toward your nieces and nephews, but it’s reasonable to ask what their long-term estate plan is. (It’s helpful for you to know that for your own estate planning.)
If you feel that this is making you angry, I think you have to keep in mind that your siblings are not doing anything wrong here and your parents are under no obligation to ensure that you all have equally comfortable financial situations. It may make you feel better to talk to your parents directly about the situation, and there’s nothing wrong with that either, but you should do it in a way that doesn’t put them on the defensive. Tell them you’ve noticed the disparity and want to better understand why they’re allocating their money the way they are, and be prepared for the likely answer, which is that it simply gives them another connection to their grandchildren and a feeling that they are providing for their future.
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I have two family members who live in my three-bedroom home. I did not want to let them live here, but our mother pleaded, as they would otherwise be homeless. (My mother has since passed away.) The agreement, however, was that this would be temporary! They paid no rent and considered themselves “guests,” so took on no responsibilities while they were looking for new employment. That was 11 years ago. Since then I have tried to ask for help around the house and/or rent, but I am bombarded with excuses. They know how much I make from an online salary database, and they insist that I am rich (I manage my money well). I have room in my home. We’re family. They make minimum wage and can’t afford rent or the cost of living. Everyone tells me to kick them out, and believe me, short of calling the police, I’ve tried that too. At this point, I’m not sure what to do.