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 work in the arts and have always lived on very little. While I think the arts should be more highly valued and offer some kind of job security, I’ve made it work and been able to save for things that really matter to me. My husband and I tend to be aligned on how we prioritize spending: travel, food and experiences. He likes to occasionally splurge on material things that often improve life for both of us. It’s worked well for us to maintain our incomes separately and pay into a joint account for rent, groceries and other shared essentials. My husband works in a much higher-paid industry; when we first met he earned slightly more than me and we each paid half our shared expenses. I chose work that I’m passionate about, make my own schedule and am willing to sacrifice a higher salary for those benefits.
This year my husband’s been rapidly promoted and now makes about 2.5 times what I earn in a good month. I’m doing a masters’ degree and while I’ve reduced my hours (and make even less), I’m working about 25 hours, split between 3 different jobs, and am in class 15 hours a week, leaving only weekends to study (never mind clean the house or take care of myself!).
I’m overwhelmed and burnt out. My husband has taken on almost 100 percent of the cooking and way more than half of the cleaning, in addition to his job. But there’s just no time, the house is always a mess, we never get to enjoy each other’s company, I’m often angry and stressed.
If I were single, I would have a full scholarship for my master and could live on my savings while working on my thesis but with my husband’s income I have to use all my savings to pay full tuition. Whenever I think of a solution, like hiring someone to clean or making an appointment with my therapist, I remember I can’t afford it.
Recently we reviewed our budget and after paying for essentials and activities, I have 50 dollars left over every month while my husband has 700 (after paying for a lot more hobbies and fun things). He always pays when we go out together, and pays for plenty of extra things for the house.
I’ve always felt strongly about paying my own way, especially because of my career choices. But I’m suddenly full of resentment. If my situation, for purposes of the scholarship, was calculated to include my husband’s income, isn’t some extra financial support from him assumed?
We talked about it and he said he’s happy supporting me economically because he’s happy living with me. But saying he’s supporting me economically feels wrong to me. It’s true he does pay for a lot more, and does a lot more around the house, but when I saw the numbers of how much more financial wiggle room he has it really frustrated me.
I guess I want to pay less than half the rent and not feel like a charity case. How?
— Broke Tired MFA
Dear Broke Tired MFA,
I’m not sure you can really have it both ways here. A big part of marriage is deciding what you want out of your lives together, and how you will, logistically, make it happen. It sounds as if you’re mostly making it work, and you have a partner who’s supportive, both financially and in terms of what he puts into household responsibilities. And you’ve decided to keep your finances separate, so it doesn’t sound like you’ve agreed that your combined incomes are your shared money. In fact, you explicitly state that you feel strongly about paying your own way, which is not what you’re actually doing. Your husband is effectively subsidizing your career development. There’s nothing wrong with this, and he seems to have no problem with it.
Given that, I think you should have a conversation about your burnout and the fact that you don’t have enough time to relax or spend time together. I’m sure your husband wouldn’t mind paying for a housekeeper, for example, if he’s already paying for other similar things, like nights out.
I think you should also consider how you’d feel if your roles were reversed, and you were the primary breadwinner. I doubt you’d want your husband to suggest that your financial contributions were fundamentally equal when they aren’t, even if you didn’t mind footing most of the bill.
I’d feel a little differently if you both agreed at the beginning of the marriage, or agreed now, that all money is shared—–your combined money is “our” money. Then it would be reasonable to expect that more of it would be contributed to your education. Even then, however, you wouldn’t be an equal contributor. I’m sympathetic to your frustration that the arts are less stable and don’t pay as well, but as someone who has made similar choices to forego pay to do creative work, and also taken jobs that are not as creatively fulfilling to make ends meet, I think you have to acknowledge that these are normal tradeoffs. I have no idea how your husband feels about his job, but I’m sure there are downsides too. (Does he make his own schedule? Is he passionate about his work the way you are?)
So I think you need to decide, together, whether you’re going to treat your combined income as one pool of money that belongs to both of you, and I also think you have to let go of the notion that you can entirely pay your own way and be able to afford what you can now, given your disparate incomes. Your other option is to find a way to increase your income so that you can actually pay into your expenses equally, but that would likely entail modifying your career choices. Ultimately, you have to decide what is more important to you: feeling completely independent financially, or getting through your MFA program in one piece, with the hopes that you can find more stability later.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am divorced. My ex-husband and I share two kids. We have a clause in our divorce decree that states each of us shall claim a child as a dependent on our taxes. The clause also includes a stipulation that if my ex is not current on child support at the end of the year I can claim both kids on my taxes.
My ex was not current at the end of 2021. He was just shy of $3,000 behind (about eight months’ worth of child support). When I informed him that because of the arrears in child support that I would be filing both of the kids as dependents on my 2021 taxes he did not react well. He accused me of stealing money from him during our marriage (which is not true) and of not having a heart (also not true).
My ex has struggled in many ways since our separation two years ago. He tried to start his own business twice and it failed both times. In addition to that he has had four other jobs and didn’t keep any of them for more than three months. He has dug himself in a pretty big hole financially.
I sympathize with his financial situation, but I am paycheck-to-paycheck myself. The child support he is supposed to pay covers his half of the kids’ health insurance (that I pay for and provide through my employer) and nothing else, despite the current custody arrangement where I have the kids more than 50 percent of the time.
I have tried my hardest to have an amicable co-parenting relationship with my ex and he has been a nightmare to deal with. Filing my taxes with both kids gets me an additional $4,500. Is it selfish of me to claim both kids, or is it a fair consequence for his actions?
— Trying to Do The Right Thing
Dear Trying to Do The Right Thing,
I understand why your ex is upset—he is under financial stress, and that’s upsetting by itself—but it’s not your fault. The terms of your divorce are very clear, and eight months of child support is not a small, incidental amount. If you want to potentially give him an out, you could offer to let him pay what he owes you in arrears and take the deduction, but you are under no obligation to do that, and it sounds as if he would not appreciate the leniency anyway, if he’s baselessly accusing you of stealing money. But it is an option.
However, you are not being selfish or unreasonable if you choose to simply claim both children as dependents. Your ex is feeling a lot of financial pressure, and sometimes when people are under a lot of stress they lash out at others, or blame others for problems of their own making. That is what your ex is doing to you, and you do not deserve it. You are doing your part to have an amicable co-parenting relationship. He is not.
Dear Pay Dirt,
We have a group of friends who like to get together about once a month when the weather is nice and go to a winery. The group consists of three families and all of us have children that are similar in age that play together while we’re there. We always welcome our friends to invite any additional families as well.
Overall, our group is good about taking turns ordering bottles of wine while we’re there, but there is one couple, “Shannon” and “Robert,” who are sometimes invited through our friend “Alice” and never volunteer to pay for anything. They do drink as much as the other people in attendance, and I know them well enough to know that they are not struggling financially, and have a similar financial situation as the rest of the group. I do not know them well enough to call them out on it, though.
My wife has mentioned this to “Alice,” who is a very non-confrontational person and is not comfortable saying anything to them. They’re nice people to hang out with, so I don’t feel right to ask “Alice” to stop inviting them. They’re either clueless, and thus would probably want to be made aware, or they’re cheap and think nobody notices that they’re mooching off of the group. What do you think the best course of action is here? I feel like I need to find a “Larry David” to invite to the group to call them out.
— No Mooching Allowed
Dear No Mooching,
I don’t think you have to confront them; I think you just have to establish at the beginning of the trip that costs will be divvied up among you and put someone in charge of managing the bill. This is why God made Venmo, by the way. Have one person pick up the check, and then request payment from all participants for their share through the app. Shannon and Robert will either have to pay what they owe, or confront the rest of you about why they can’t or won’t.
You can do this very simply via email. Here’s a script: “Hi all: Excited about our next trip! To ease the annoyance of having to manage the logistics of figuring out what we all owe and paying for everything in the moment, I’m happy to pick up the check and settle up afterwards via Venmo, if no one objects. Let me know if you’re not on the app and we’ll figure out something else.”
Keep in mind they may not be intentionally mooching. They may think Alice is treating them, or something, since she’s inviting them. The Venmo solution or some comparable expectation-setting before the next trip should remove any ambiguity about it, and save everyone a needless confrontation.
Dear Pay Dirt,
For years, I have quietly been covering the travel expenses of my brother and sister for when there are family trips or to see our aging parents. Military life left my brother with bad knees and PTSD, while my sister lost her life savings after a bad divorce and two bouts of cancer. Both work retail and pay their own bills, but even one plane ticket across the country is out of their budget. Our parents don’t travel much anymore and live on a fixed income. However, I make a good living and a few thousand dollars every year for us all to be together is not a sacrifice for me.
My other brother and his wife “’Ellen”’ both have steady careers, as do Ellen’s adult children. None of them are hurting for money, it seems, given how much they travel and post about it on social media (Ellen’s youngest just went to Europe twice this year alone). My sister was speaking with Ellen on the phone about her work stress and her upcoming visit to see our parents. My sister said she couldn’t afford to stay more than a weekend and miss a day of work, with all her bills. Ellen asked where she got the money for the plane ticket, then? My sister said I was helping her out and had done so for years. She wouldn’t be able to visit at all if it wasn’t for me.
This pissed Ellen off, to no end. Apparently, me never offering to cover her kids’ trips, even though they were teens living at home was a personal slight. Ellen married my brother when her kids were in high school. While no one is particularly close to them, we do consider them family and send all the appropriate gifts on the right occasions (birthdays, etc).
Ellen called me up to confront me about the issue. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have engaged but this completely blindsided me. It was like arguing with my supervisor why I got the unpaid intern Starbucks and not him. Ellen accused me of hating her and her kids. I called her an entitled Karen (which according to my brother is a slur). Later, my brother followed up to make me see “’reason.”’ I told him I would apologize to his wife for any insults but the subject needed to be dropped six feet under.
Ellen went to my parents and sister. My brother pulled our other brother in to “clear the air.” Long story short, my parents who have no money are offering to cover the trips for my siblings who have no money and who are refusing because our parents have no money, and everyone feels like a charity case because my sister-in-law is mad I didn’t pay to send her kids to Iceland (which all three have gone to).
I don’t know how to fix this. I am not bragging. I don’t have a savior complex. I just don’t see the need for my sister to clip coupons or my brother to have to work double shifts to see our family when I can afford the ticket. They cover coffee when the family goes out, our parents cook, and my other brother and I cover big meals. Everyone gets a little grace and saves face. Not acceptable to my sister-in-law. If there was actual need, real need, I would happily help out my brother and his wife. I don’t think overseas trips are a “need.” Help.
— Social Graces
Dear Social Graces,
Your sister-in-law is way out of line. You are being generous to two of your siblings who are seriously struggling. She and your brother should be grateful for that, especially when they are in a position to help, too, and they’re not doing it. You don’t owe anyone plane tickets, but you especially don’t owe your brother and Ellen plane tickets to see your parents, when they can obviously afford it themselves.
Tell Ellen that if she and your brother were struggling to make ends meet the way your other siblings are, you would gladly pay for their plane tickets, to see your parents, specifically. (You are not subsidizing your less-well-off siblings’ island vacations, here.) But they are doing fine, and now they are putting your parents in a position where they might incur financial hardship, just so that the family can be together.
I would ignore Ellen and your brother and their wildly inflated sense of entitlement to your money. Just buy your less-well-off siblings tickets anyway, so your parents don’t have to, before your parents are able to foot the bill. If Ellen and your brother want to join, they can buy their own tickets, just like they do when they want to travel to Iceland.
Your willingness to give a gift to someone who needs it does not morally obligate you to give one to someone who doesn’t. Your money belongs to you, not the family at large. If your money did belong to the family at large, by that logic, so would the money that belongs to Ellen and your brother, which would presumably also be used to pay for your other siblings’ plane tickets. By Ellen’s logic, she should also be pitching in to subsidize your sibling’s plane tickets, not taking money from you for hers.
More Advice from Slate
My ex-wife married a good man immediately after our divorce. Our marriage dissolved under the stress of my career and a need for constant moves. Honestly, we get along better now than we did during most of our marriage. I don’t own my own place, as it would be a waste with me relocating as often as I do. When I see my kids, I usually ended up staying at my ex’s. Our youngest has mobility issues, and it is easier to bring all the children together (mine and my ex’s new kids) than to parcel out separate child care. My question is: How do I explain this situation to the women I date and make it clear I am doing it for my kids and not because I am still in love with my ex?