Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
Is it wrong to leave my estate to a small charity? I am a 63-year old widower with no children. I am currently thinking of revamping my will to leave my entire estate to a local dog rescue. I have obtained dogs from this rescue at several points in my life: first in 1987, and then again in 2000, 2007, 2015, and 2021. The rescue does a marvelous job on a shoestring budget: the dogs have indoor and outdoor play areas; plenty of food and water; regular vet check-ups; comfortable, climate-controlled areas for sleep; and are separated by size, weight, and, if required, disability and temperament. The rescue performs background and home inspection checks on all prospective adopters. The dogs I have obtained from this organization have meant the world to me, as they did to my late wife.
My current will leaves my estate to my nieces and nephews. They are adults now, and fine people, but in all frankness we have no special relationship. I see them only at large family gatherings, where we might have friendly but fairly superficial chit-chat and catch ups. To give an example, none of us thought to get together via zoom at any point during the pandemic, although there were some check-ins on social media.
The rescue operates on small donations and volunteers. I send a check each Christmas—about $100—and am always surprised at the kind and personalized note of thanks they send back, along with inquiries about my current dogs and gratitude for the home I provided to the dogs who have passed on. Other than that I am not personally involved in any way with the rescue.
I am in fine health and may be around for as many as thirty years or more, so there is nothing imminent about this (as far as I know!). Nonetheless, a friend of mine is horrified at my plan, arguing that a large donation to a tiny organization is not only ridiculous, but even immoral, given other needs in the world. Maybe my friend is right, and I honestly don’t know what the organization might even do with a substantial windfall. On the other hand, short of my wife, nothing in my life has come close to bringing me the peace and joy of loving the dogs I have obtained from this rescue.
The current value of my estate is $2.5 million. I live simply and the activities I enjoy are free or inexpensive, so it’s likely the estate will grow over the years, although I am quite aware of what end-of-life healthcare costs might do. So… can I leave all my worldly possessions to this small organization?
—Gone to the Dogs?
Dear Gone to the Dogs,
There is nothing wrong with leaving your estate to… whomever you want. It is your money and your legacy. I would suggest consulting an estate planner to figure out the logistics of leaving your estate to a small charity (they may not have the immediate infrastructure to handle the donation), and also to think about whether your estate needs to go entirely to one place, if that’s your concern. You could leave part of your estate to the animal rescue, part of it to other causes, and some to your relatives if you feel that you want to. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing to one organization.
You should ignore your friend’s critique because, well, there’s always a more deserving cause and more than you can do. We could all sell everything we own right now and donate the proceeds to charities we believe attack the most urgent problems, but that’s not a reasonable expectation. It’s also not reasonable to expect that you’re going to evaluate every conceivable option, land on one that’s “most deserving” by some empirical measure, and go all in on that. There’s a moral argument to be made for donating where you best understand what the organization does and what its needs are. All of these things are potential variables to be considered in your decision.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband is emotionally abusive at times, and I don’t trust that he has my best interest in mind. I’m staying with him because of our kids. Recently, he got upset at me for not telling him about saving some money from my paycheck. I did vaguely tell him before, but it was not clear to him and I guess he didn’t realize. I am the main breadwinner in the house and I have repeatedly asked him about saving for retirement. I’m 51 and he is 56. We have little retirement savings. I wanted to save and open a Roth.
He now said his trust is broken in me for not being honest. But when I asked him about our future retirement, he said he wants to focus on our kids and if we have extra money we can think about saving. He said he can work until he’s 70. When I said It seems like you are just going to leave after the kids leave the house, he didn’t respond.
I feel bad if I keep some money to hole away, but also I don’t want to be desolate in the future.
—That Didn’t Go Well
Dear That Didn’t Go Well,
As a child of divorced parents, I think you should seriously evaluate whether “staying because of the kids” is really the best thing for the kids—it isn’t, always—because it sounds like it isn’t the best thing for you. But that aside, you can’t let your husband sabotage your financial security in retirement. You need to remind your husband that if you do not have enough money to get by in retirement, your kids will be the ones paying for it. So if it’s really “about the kids,” he should have no objection to saving.
I think you should tell him what you’re doing, but I’m not sure why you need his permission to do this very practical and necessary thing. If you feel like you need to get his buy-in, you should both see a financial planner, who will tell him, in no uncertain terms, that not saving for retirement when you’re capable of it is not wise.
And you do need to consider the possibility that if you do split up—because you leave or he does—you’ll want to feel financially secure and independent. So don’t feel bad about putting some money away. Your husband is free to do the same, and you should remind him of that.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My dad died in 2020, unexpectedly. My sister and I have been working on settling the estate since then. He didn’t have a current, signed will, so it took a while. He owned a couple houses, which we have sold, and he also had some seven figures socked away in two investment accounts. I always knew he had over a million, but I didn’t know it was this much. My sister and I can’t exactly retire right now, but it does mean that we basically don’t have to worry about money unless something catastrophic happens.
So my question is, how do I not go crazy with it? I haven’t made any major purchases, and I have promised my husband that I wouldn’t make any for at least a year from when I get the money (which is not yet, but soon). My husband basically says, “it’s up to you what to do with the money; it’s not mine, so I don’t want to tell you what to do.”
Besides paying off our mortgage, car notes, credit card debt, and being able to pay for my grad school without loans…what should I do next? Go part-time at work so that I’m not driving myself into the ground trying to do grad school and parent a young child and also work full time? Set aside money for kids’ college? But what if they don’t want to go to college? Make long-awaited updates on my house? Get a financial planner? Just keep the money in the stocks my dad had, since they apparently did pretty well for him?
I have fantasies about buying an apartment building and lowering everybody’s rent to fight against the ridiculous housing market in our city, or buying a vacation house somewhere cool, but I’m going to sit on my hands regarding those plans for a long while.
—Choosing An Adventure—Or Not?
Dear Choosing An Adventure,
Sudden, unexpected financial security is an excellent problem to have! I think you’re wise to take some time and think about your options instead of immediately making big purchases. This is where a financial planner can be incredibly helpful because they’re well-versed in helping you anticipate potential future expenses that are necessities and not luxuries, which is perspective you need to better understand how much you can spend on a discretionary basis. (And in this context, “necessity” includes things like college savings, which are often tax-advantaged.) That should be your first step.
I would advise specifically against solely keeping the money in the stocks your dad had, unless you’re equipped to follow and analyze them yourself, and most people are not. A financial advisor can tell you how to round out your dad’s equity portfolio with other things that will mitigate risk while still giving you some potential equity upside.
Then, when you know what you really have to work with outside of necessary expenses, you can think about how you’d like to spend the balance. There is no right answer here; only what’s right for you personally. Some people derive more happiness and satisfaction from things like home improvements and real estate upgrades; others, when given unlimited (or less limited) resources, opt for experience in the form of travel or artistic pursuits. (Personally, I’d go back to grad school and get a bunch of commercially useless degrees, but I’m a weirdo who always enjoyed school.)
One way to think about this is to think about the things that have brought you the most lasting satisfaction historically, and invest there. Another is to think about how you’d like to be living your life in the next year, in five years, in twenty, and what it would take to get there. Five-year plans are not just for job interview questions.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I am bad with money. I have been since I was in middle school and would buy iPhone apps with my parents’ credit card, lose track of how much I was spending, and instead of spending the $5 or $10 I was allowed to, spent $50 (yes, I did this many, many times, and yes, I feel really bad about it).
My parents were, luckily, always able to afford it, and I am now 25, in graduate school, surviving off of student loans because working and attending grad school full time isn’t doable with my disabilities. I still have awful impulse control when it comes to money and have a hard time saying no to myself when I want something. I have diagnosed and medicated ADHD, but this area hasn’t gotten much better.
How do I get better at this? All the advice I’ve seen about building a credit score (which I know is important to do) is to get a credit card and make sure to pay it off, but I’m terrified the second one is in my hands, I’ll way overspend and end up in debt. Thinking about money at all makes me insanely anxious and I don’t really budget because I get barely one step into the process and want to literally run away. I know this situation is not tenable long-term, but I don’t know how to get past the point I’m at.
—Stuck With No Credit
Dear Stuck With No Credit,
As a person with ADHD, impulse control and money management are going to be naturally challenging for you, and your psychiatrist probably understands this. There are therapy programs that help people with ADHD manage organizational things in a systematic way that makes them seem less overwhelming, and you should talk to your doctor about your available options.
There are also non-profit credit counseling organizations that will help you figure out how to fix your credit; many will also help with financial planning and things like budgeting. As you probably already know, you tackle big intimidating problems in increments, by taking tiny first steps. I have attentional issues and struggle with this too, and my secret weapon is just deciding to take one tiny step without thinking of the (in my mind) thousands that follow. In this case, you could call the organization and make an appointment. They will tell you exactly what to do from there. Put next steps out of your mind until you’ve done that. (And by the way, it will feel very good to have made that one step. That is progress.)
Keep in mind, too, that you don’t have to do everything by yourself. Organizations like these are there to help. There are also support groups for people trying to be better with money and/or get themselves out of debt. Having social support can make all of this much easier.
To recap: your to-do for today is simple. Go to this link and either call the number or fill out the form. That’s it. Just do that. Then spend the rest of the day feeling good that you are making progress!
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