Pay Dirt

I Don’t Like My Dad. Should I Let Him Pay for College?

Not sure I can go, otherwise.

A man and a woman hugging - the woman has a graduation cap.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by digitalskillet/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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 advice on how to handle my relationship with my father. Growing up, I’ve known my father as the nice parent who might listen, the mentally absent parent, and the terrifyingly angry and violent parent, in different situations. My role as a child was often something of a peacemaker. He’s mellowed out as he’s gotten older, I think, but due to circumstances, we don’t live in the same place.

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Recently, I’ve been coming to terms with how much he scares me and the fact that I…don’t really like him, especially due to how much my mother suffered with him (a lot). Right now, he is the “nicer” parent, though. My mother? Much of the time I equivocate between the idea that there is something wrong with me and I’m bad and the idea that she might not be treating me well. Some things I’ve read about on the internet seem to point to the latter, I think? There is no one else I can look to for support. I’m living a very secluded life right now.

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If I want to go to college, I’ll have to rely on my father for help with tuition; there is no way I could manage that. But it feels wrong to take his money when I don’t really like him. Do you have advice on how to handle my relationship with him in the future?

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—Dependent, but Having Doubts

Dear Doubts, 

I think it really depends on whether you want to repair your relationship with your father—and I’m not suggesting that he deserves it. In the longer run, you may feel differently about your parents, especially as they and you get older. If you think that might be the case, it’s worth working out some of this stuff in therapy.

But your big priority should be finding a support system in the absence of your parents. I don’t know from this letter how old you are, but there are many people who’ve been through similar things, and there are free support groups you can join that will help you find resources to deal with your family problems and give you people to talk to about them who understand your situation.

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As for college, you could file for financial aid as an emancipated minor, and then you’d be eligible for financial aid based on your income and not that of your parents. That is a bit of a legal process and it can be difficult to navigate, but college financial aid officers generally understand and are sympathetic to situations where an incoming student does not have parental support. But doing that would mean that if your father is supporting you now financially, you’d have to say no to any further support and he cannot claim you as a dependent for tax purposes. So you would need to be prepared to, among other things, tell him overtly that you don’t feel comfortable taking his money to fund your education.

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There are a lot of people who don’t really like their parents coming out of high school, and there are a lot of parents who don’t really like their kids at that age. You have good reason to be angry at your father, but keep in mind that your feelings might change over time. So you also need to examine why you think it would be wrong to let him help pay for your education. Is it because you think you think you’d be taking advantage of him, or because you don’t want to feel obligated to continue the relationship? The answer should guide your thinking.

Dear Pay Dirt, 

My daughter Mary, 30, is intelligent, beautiful and the mother of my three-year-old grandson. She was diagnosed as bipolar when she was fourteen, but has adamantly refused to take meds or see a therapist since she was 18.

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Through a series of COVID-related events and poor choices on her part, she is currently unemployed and has run through most of her resources. The only reason she has a place to live is because COVID policies have kept her from being evicted. She’s been driving on an expired license with expired car tags for over a year. I have spent thousands bailing her out of financial emergencies—car repairs, a DUI, lawyer for restraining order and child custody, the list goes on and on—over the years, with her only to turn around and fall head-long into another catastrophe.

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Last week Mary’s car was repossessed. I do not have the money needed to get it back, and am not sure I would even if I did, because she still doesn’t have the income to support having a car. I’ve explained this to Mary, and her response is that her life is too messed up to fix, and there’s no point in living if she doesn’t have the freedom having a car affords her (she says she would be stuck in her apartment and never be able to go anywhere, although the city she lives in has an extensive public transport system). She told me she doesn’t look at death like most people (she believes she is special and unique, and has specific insight into spiritual things). She said dying is like ending a game she doesn’t want to play anymore.

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I don’t know how serious she is, because she has threatened suicide before when she didn’t get what she wanted. I feel like I need to have her involuntarily committed because she is at risk of harming herself, although I know she will never forgive me for it. I still need to make the call, don’t I?

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—There’s The Car, Then There’s Everything Else

Dear There’s the Car, 

If she’s threatening suicide, you absolutely need to make the call. You’re not in any position to evaluate whether she’s serious, and it seems like all of her financial problems stem from untreated mental illness. Yes, she will probably be angry at you, but if it gets her into treatment and helps her get a support system that can help her address her problems, financial and otherwise, it would be worth it. Your grandson’s welfare is at stake here, too.

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In most states, involuntary commitment is contingent upon the suicidal person presenting an imminent threat to themselves or others; keep in mind that courts can interpret that very narrowly. (I have some unfortunate personal experience with this, involving a family member.) So it’s important that if she threatens suicide again, you act quickly. Having someone involuntarily committed is serious, and an aggressive response, but when it comes to suicide, the stakes could not be higher.

If you’d like to talk through what’s happening with a professional, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will offer you support and resources. (Suicide hotlines are not just for people who are suicidal themselves; they can also walk you through what to do if a loved one is suicidal.) Their number is 1-800-273-8255.

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I’m very sorry this is happening to your family, but if you feel that your daughter is in danger of harming herself, you are doing the right thing by intervening.

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Dear Pay Dirt, 

My parent is a well-established and influential employee at their company, and has connections with similarly positioned people at other companies as well.

I did not, and do not, want to enter into my parent’s career path. Despite that, I am looking into employment at these companies in an entirely different department (think marketing versus development). The pandemic essentially wiped out my previous career and left me pretty devastated. I loved my work, so this is an incredibly hard transition for me.

The trouble is that I do not want to talk about any of this. I would rather not use my parent’s connections to get better employment on their track, and I do not want to hear my parent trying to help me, since they often miss the mark regarding the path I am interested in. I want to do this on my own merit, and more importantly, I know I could not handle being “so-and-so’s kid” in a work environment. Ideally, I don’t even want my new colleagues to know about my parent’s position in the adjacent field. Yet my parent is insistent on Helping Me.

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The question is, what do I do? My parent only ever wants to talk about this and offer me advice when we are around each other, despite several topic changes, trying to address how painful this is, and my asking to talk about literally anything else. I honestly think it would be easier to herd cats than keep them off the topic of their lifelong passion for their work. I don’t even want to think about what might trickle down from future managers who might know my parent! Help?

—Please Let’s Change The Subject

Dear Let’s Change The Subject, 

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Here, I’ll offer you a tip a colleague of mine learned from his days studying child psychology that may be applicable to managing conversations with your parent: If a child doesn’t like what you’re suggesting, always offer a substitution. It sounds like your parent is just concerned about you, and wants to help. If they’re professionally successful, they may regard their professional identity as the most important aspect of who they are, and may think it’s the best part of themselves that they can offer you, and the best way that they can help. This is about them, not you.

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So here’s what you can do: Offer them a substitution. Find another way that they can be helpful and articulate it to them overtly. Ask them for this help–which may just be some time off together, or help with something that has nothing to do with your job. They want to feel needed here, and it’s probably difficult for them not to talk about work because it’s very important in their own life. If you can figure out something else to let them help you with, they will probably stop insisting on helping you with your career.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My late wife had an unhappy first marriage to a wealthier older man. She kept much of the expensive jewelry he gave her but rarely wore anything.

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We adopted “Lisa” as a toddler, but I lost my wife soon after. When Lisa was seven, I married my second wife, who had a daughter the same age, “Nora.” Together we had two more children.

Nora has been competitive all her life. She is very driven but a sore loser. She can get particularly vicious when her interests overlap with Lisa’s. When Lisa got into the college Nora wanted to go to, she accused her sister of sleeping with the recruiter, and so on.

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Nora and Lisa are both adults now, and both engaged. They are paying for everything themselves. Lisa inherited her mother’s jewelry when she turned 21. She put everything in a lockbox at her bank, except a rather large diamond ring. She is using that as her engagement ring. Her reasoning is it was wasteful to have her partner spend money on a ring rather than save for the wedding.

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Nora has been openly snide and critical of Lisa’s ring, saying it wasn’t “real” if her partner didn’t pay or propose with it, Lisa was deliberately showing off, and it most likely would “curse” her marriage since her “fake mother” had a bad first marriage.

Lisa had been holding her tongue because she didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. Nora usually burns herself out after a while, but the fake mother comment set her off. She posted on social media about what a jealous bitch Nora was. Nora responded nastily. Lisa told her she was disinvited to the wedding.

Lisa and her partner are sticking to their guns. My wife is very distraught over this and fears it’s made a permanent rift in our family. I have told her there wasn’t anything we could do but keep out of it. The girls are adults and Nora knew exactly what she was doing.

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My wife makes excuses for Nora about how hard this is on her and it isn’t fair Lisa is using her mother’s jewelry to rub it in her face. She has asked me to get Lisa to “give” back a few pieces and we could use the stones for Nora’s new ring. I think this is bonkers and will just backfire on us. Help?

—It’s Not About The Ring, Right?

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Dear  Not About The Ring, 

It is absolutely not about the ring, it’s about Nora’s jealousy, which she needs to get under control. There’s also some incredible hubris in Nora insisting that she get some of your late wife’s jewelry after disrespectfully suggesting that she wasn’t a real mother to Lisa simply because Lisa was adopted. I’m an adoptee myself, and I would have been just as enraged as Lisa was, not just for myself but for how insulting that would be to my adoptive mother.

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At any rate, you are correct that they are adults and this is not your problem, but if you’re inclined to get involved, you should set some boundaries with Nora. Tell her no, regarding Lisa’s jewelry, and make it clear that it is indeed Lisa’s jewelry. Nora had no relationship with your late wife, and it is completely unreasonable for her to behave as if she’s entitled to it. (It’s also oddly hypocritical—she’s suggesting Lisa’s ring isn’t “real” because her partner didn’t pay for it, but is proposing that she should also be given some stones her partner isn’t going to pay for.)

I completely understand why Lisa disinviting Nora to her wedding would create anxiety for your wife. No one wants this kind of conflict in their family. But given the behavior you’ve described, it seems reasonable that Lisa would not want her at her wedding, and she is allowed to set boundaries, too.

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If you’re both determined to try to intervene and fix this, I think you are going to have to tell Nora that her behavior is unacceptable, and she will no doubt accuse you of taking a side. But sometimes, you do have to take a side, and here you have one daughter who’s behaving terribly and the other who, with the exception of the social media comment, has been behaving pretty reasonably.

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And your wife is being unreasonable in suggesting that Lisa’s utilization of her mother’s jewelry is somehow rubbing it in Nora’s face. Lisa is allowed to enjoy the gift she was given, which is probably meaningful to her because it came from her mother. That Nora and your wife think that a very natural response to a gift from a loved one is somehow about making Nora feel bad says more about them than it does about Lisa.

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—Elizabeth

More Advice from Slate

I’ve been with my wife for eight years, married for three, and we recently had a baby. I love my wife, and I adore our baby girl, but while I love my wife, I’m not “in love” with her anymore, and I’m no longer attracted to her physically. Our relationship is more like two roommates who share parenting duties. She is my best friend, and I love her like a sister. I don’t want a divorce. Instead, I want to ask her if I can open the relationship. Of course if we open it, I’d be happy to let her date as well. How do I gently broach the topic without hurting her feelings? 

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