Pay Dirt

Half My Family Never Writes a Thank-You Note. Is Disinheritance Too Harsh?

I know, I know, I’m being ridiculous, but I’m hurt.

A pair of hands holding a gift box
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HAKINMHAN/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,

We are a gay couple updating our wills. Over the years, we’ve had some nieces and nephews on both sides of the family who we have helped out financially; always sent gifts to for Christmas, birthdays, and life events; and (most importantly) enjoyed their company when they came to visit us or vice versa. There are 13 nieces and nephews altogether, all of them in their late teens or 20s.

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The issue is that seven of them have always acknowledged us, thanked us for our gifts, invited us to events, etc., while with the other six it’s radio silence. Not even a quick text or email to say thanks when we send a Christmas or birthday present, just so we know they received it.

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We want to leave most of our estate to our nieces and nephews, but I feel we should just leave it to the seven with whom we have actual relationships. My partner feels that would be rude even though he does agree with me that their lack of acknowledgment of things we do for them is also rude. He suggested that perhaps I’m trying to use our will as a “we’ll show you!” to the nieces and nephews who don’t get anything, but I view it more as a “why give money to people we barely know, just because they’re family?”

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—Not Even a Text?

Dear Not Even a Text,

It is rude of your nieces and nephews not to acknowledge gifts, but I would also keep in mind that teenagers and college kids are not entirely the best at performing gestures of etiquette. They are learning how to be adults. So I would not take the silence too personally. They are probably not snubbing you, just preoccupied with all of the things that tend to make the lives of teenagers chaotic and full of drama.

I would also caution against using your will this way. You suggest that your logic for leaving some of the nieces and nephews out is because you barely know them, but your grievances are listed first. I think your partner is right that it will be viewed as a “we’ll show you!” or, worse, favoritism they don’t even understand. And it could also create tension between them and the nieces and nephews you do help out, which is not fair to them, and not something I think you want for them.

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So if you’ve set a precedent of sending gifts to all of them, I think you need to continue doing so, and do so in the writing of your will, or it will be viewed as an omission driven by spite. And I would give your nieces and nephews who don’t send thank-you notes a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. What you view as ingratitude or, potentially, a snub might just be typical teenage flakiness.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

More than a decade ago, my family of six lived in a cramped three-bedroom one-bath house. It was over a century old and had no closets. My husband and I had planned to expand and update the house, but I got pregnant with twins—one with special needs. All the time, money, and energy just drained away, but my family made do.

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The problem was my 18-year-old niece got kicked out of her home for being gay. She had nowhere to go, so we took her in, but had nowhere to put her. We couldn’t cramp another bed in with the twins, and having her sleep with our older boys was inappropriate. The living room was not a long-term solution given the lack of privacy and use of the space. We had an odd, long laundry room, but with a private door. We moved out the shelves and set up a camping bed for my niece. It wasn’t ideal but she had her own space and the only time anyone entered it was at a predetermined time. She lived with us for four years rent-free until she saved up enough money to find her own place. It wasn’t the greatest of times, but I have always been proud of us all.

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Both our boys are in college, our twins are doing wonderfully, and my husband and I have managed to add a second bathroom and close off the porch to make a fourth room and new laundry/mudroom.

My niece is engaged. We met her fiancée a few times. A snowstorm made her stay over a weekend without my niece (she was in town on business). I was cooking dinner and talking about all our new home improvements. The fiancée got up abruptly when I mentioned the new laundry room. I pressed her on what was wrong and she exploded on me. She couldn’t keep silent anymore—she said my family treated my niece like a “dog.” Giving her the barest of scraps and expecting her to be grateful for them. She had to live in the laundry room and had to walk 2 miles every day rain or shine to work (we only had one working car then).

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I was stunned. My niece made us out to be barely better than her homophobic parents who threw her out with her clothes in trash bags. I asked the fiancée what she thought we should have done? The answer: better. She went back to the guest room. The next day, she apologized and asked me to forget what she said. I couldn’t, even after several weeks.

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I ended up asking my niece to lunch and asking her if she really thought my husband and I were abusive towards her when she lived with us. Why did her fiancée think so? My niece grew red and told me her fiancée shouldn’t have said anything. I asked if it was true; she deflected and then defended herself: We put her in the laundry room, for crying out loud.

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I asked her what was her ideal solution, then: sleeping with the twins, in our bedroom, on the porch, or a tent in the backyard? The living room wasn’t workable since my husband had to be at work by 6 a.m., so we were out the door at 5:30. And I was back to get the kids off to school and work myself. My niece is a light sleeper to begin with. Were we cruel to her? Hateful? Homophobic?

My niece snapped that she knew she was never a primary priority for me. She got up, threw a few bills on the table, and left. Since then she will not return my calls but has invited my entire family to the wedding. I haven’t even told my husband about all this. He will be very hurt and very angry over this.

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I am baffled and feel hurt and betrayed. I don’t know if I want to attend the wedding, and if I don’t, what to tell people.

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—We Did Our Best

Dear We Did Our Best,

You did nothing wrong and your niece is likely angry that she did not get what she deserved from her parents. She is taking it out on you for reasons that have nothing to do with you. She is also not your child and moved in with you when she was 18, an age when many young people leave home to live independently. You were not obligated to offer her what you did.

But I would still recommend treating her with as much compassion as you can muster. When gay children are disowned by their families for being gay, it creates a lot of trauma and distrust of family bonds. Your niece’s anger is not really about you not doing your best, but about how she should have been treated and cared for by people who are not you.

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If you think explaining the circumstances at the time might help the situation (she may not be fully aware of how much you were struggling), it may mitigate the tension. But this is really about her overall feelings of betrayal, and that’s something that only she can work out—and hopefully she will, over time.

Dear Pay Dirt,

Between personal savings and a gift from my parents, my wife and I have saved up around $200,000, which is wonderful. We are in our mid-30s and live in an expensive coastal city. I am happy with my job, which I can work remotely, while my wife is in academia and not pleased with her current position. We are considering purchasing a house. Even with our significant savings it is insanely expensive to purchase a house here. That said, we could do it.

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The catch is that my wife would like to apply for new jobs. Because of her field, jobs are posted once a year. She may find a wonderful job next year and we could move. Or it may be three or four years before the right job comes up. For context, we thought we’d be in our last city for two years but ended up staying seven. Just as we thought about buying a house, she got a new job and we moved.

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So, the question is, if we may move any given year, but also may stay for an extended period, does it make sense to purchase a house, given the insane market? If we could easily move next year, that seems crazy. She feels if we purchase a house, then she has to stop looking for jobs for a while. But we can’t forever put off a purchase as we do want our own house and want to avoid the insane rent we pay.

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If we decide not to purchase, what should we do with the money? It is sitting in a low-interest savings account at the moment, which basically means it’s losing money given inflation.

—Married to the Academy

Dear Married to the Academy,

You have a lot of potential trade-offs here, and I think it’s always helpful in these situations to try to quantify what you want in terms of what you’d pay for it. You both really want a house, and your wife wants a new job. How important is being in a house you own immediately? How unsatisfied is your wife with her job, and how much better would a new job be for her? Would it increase her income?

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Overall, you want to think about what you want, and what you want sooner rather than later. If it’s very important to you to be a homeowner sooner, you may just want to declare that the trade-off and go ahead and buy. If your wife gets a job she can’t refuse, you can always sell the house, and you should build that into your calculations too (along with the potential cost and inconvenience of selling the house, of course). If not, you want to have some idea of how long you’d be willing to wait until your wife has a new job in hand. A year? Five years?

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I’m not suggesting you sit down and do some kind of super complicated cost-benefit analysis (though I might because I am incorrigibly that person), but going through that process at a high level helps you better understand what you really want and are willing to spend money for.

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Regarding your money now: I’m not sure what you mean by your savings losing money due to inflation. The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates aggressively to combat inflation. This is good for your savings! What it’s not good for is borrowing money to buy a house, which should also be a factor in your calculus. Interest rates have been near zero for a long time, and that made it cheap to borrow money. Last Wednesday, the Fed hiked rates by half a percentage point, which is extremely aggressive. But if you feel that your savings could potentially be doing more for you, you may want to talk to a financial adviser about diversifying your portfolio.

Dear Pay Dirt,

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Is being happy worth adding to an already inflated debt? I have roughly $120,000 in student loans ($150,000 of which are eligible for forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in five years) and $19,000 in credit card debt. I use my credit card as my payment source and pay more than I spend, plus interest, every month, but never enough to pay it off.

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I work for the Department of Defense and have the opportunity to transfer bases from somewhere I am miserable to somewhere I was extremely happy before I left. I know moving will add to my debt, both for the movers and for the increased payment in  housing. It will put me closer to family and where I’ll enjoy going to work. There will be no pay increase.

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My brain says it is a bad idea, but my heart and mental health says “GO!”

—Scared and Torn

Dear Scared and Torn,

As I said to a prior letter writer, it helps to quantify what you want to answer this question. We often trade off financial security for happiness or satisfaction. We do that when we go to a restaurant, even though we could eat at home much cheaper; travel for pleasure; or spend a little extra to make our homes more comfortable in ways that are not strictly necessary. There’s nothing morally wrong with this, and whether it’s practically a good idea depends on how much you value and need financial security, and how you weigh that against the other things you value and need.

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I think you need a long-term strategy for paying off your credit card debt, which is going to balloon if you continue spending more than you’re paying off, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. But if the difference between your living situation now and before is as stark as you make it sound, it may be worth it to move, just to put you in a better mental place to get financially stable.

But if you think that’s the case, you need to budget and plan all of this before you make the decision to move. Your happier place will not be so happy if you find yourself confronted with a lot of unforeseen expenses that make your precarious financial situation completely unsustainable. That means understanding concretely what your expenses will be, creating realistic budgets, not overspending and trying to put some money into savings before you take on another big expense.

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You should also consider trade-offs that could save you money. If you’re living alone now, you may want to share housing in a more expensive market. (Would it be worth it to you to move if it meant living with a roommate?) Another question is whether you need to move right now. Could you cut costs and save over the course of a year with a goal of moving back at that point? If you’re going to prioritize living somewhere that makes you happy, that may mean making some immediate compromises to get what you want in the longer term, and that includes cutting back on the expenses you’re putting on your credit card. You also need to come up with a long-term plan for emergency situations that isn’t just putting more money on the card, which means thinking about savings too. I think you can find a way to be pragmatic about your long-term financial situation while not forcing yourself to continue being miserable.

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—Elizabeth

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I have two kids, 8 and 6. For the past couple years, I’d been increasingly frustrated by him not contributing enough to take care of our house and kids. We both work, but I’m the one who has had to sacrifice my professional goals. Last year it blew up in a big fight, and I basically told him he needed to help out more or I was going to leave. Instead of agreeing to do some vacuuming or folding laundry, he quit his job and became a stay-at-home dad. He loves it. He does the minimum to keep the house clean, takes the kids to school, makes dinner most nights, and spends his day playing video games. With me now working full time and not paying for child care, we haven’t suffered much financially. But I’m so angry that he’s doing this now that our kids are old enough to not need constant care. Now he gets to do all the things I wanted to do as a mother. I don’t even know how to approach this because he’s doing what I demanded, even if it wasn’t what I intended.

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